Vernonia School District 47J v. Acton et ux., Guardians ad Litem for Acton (No. 94-590) 515 U.S. 646, is a case that was argued before the U.S. Supreme Court on March 28, 1995, and decided on June 26, 1995. In it, the Court ruled on the constitutionality of random drug testing of student athletes.
Located in the small logging town of Vernonia, Oregon, Vernonia School District 47J was composed of one high school and three grade schools. Throughout the 1980s, school athletics played a prominent role in the town’s life, and student-athletes served as role models. However, in the mid- to late 1980s, teachers and administrators observed student-athletes boasting of drug use, which they believed promoted a drug culture. Simultaneously, disciplinary referrals doubled in number when compared to the early 1980s. Additionally, some athletes suffered injuries because of their own drug use, as well as the use of others.
Initially, the district invited guest speakers, gave presentations, and created special classes to educate students on the dangers of drug use. When the problem persisted, they brought in trained dogs to sniff out drugs on campus, but to no avail.
To address the drug problem among athletes, district officials proposed a student athlete drug policy to the parents, who provided input on the policy and granted unanimous approval for it. The school board approved the policy, the purpose of which was to prevent student-athletes from using drugs, protect their health and safety, and provide drug users with assistance programming.
Under the policy, athletes were tested through urinalysis at the beginning of the season, and then randomly selected for testing once a week throughout the duration of the season. The students’ urine samples were sent to an independent laboratory and tested for amphetamines, cocaine, and marijuana. Only the superintendent, principals, vice principals, and athletic directors had access to test results, which were kept for one year only. If a sample tested positive, a second test was administered to confirm the result. If the second test was negative, no further action was taken. If the second test was positive, then the athlete’s parents were informed and the athlete could choose one of two options: (1) participate in an assistance program that included weekly urinalysis or (2) be suspended from the remaining athletic season and the next one as well. Second-time offenders were automatically given option 2. Third-time offenders were suspended for the remainder of the season and the next two seasons. The policy required all student-athletes participating in interscholastic sports and their parents to sign a drug testing consent form as a condition for participation in sports.
The policy had been in place for two full years when James Acton, then a seventh grader, was prohibited from playing football because his parents refused to sign the testing consent forms. In 1991, the Actons filed suit, claiming that the district’s policy violated Article I, §9, of the Oregon Constitution, as well as the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which argues for “the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures,” and the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which extends the constitutional guarantee to searches and seizures by state officers including public school officials. After a bench trial, the Vernonia District Court denied the Actons’ claims and dismissed the suit. However, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed the District Court’s ruling, holding that the policy did indeed violate both the Fourth and 14th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution and Article I, §9, of the Oregon Constitution.
In a 6-3 vote, the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed that mandatory drug testing of student-athletes does not violate the Fourth Amendment and, therefore, is constitutional. The Court argued that children in schools have less privacy than free adults. As argued earlier in the New Jersey v. T.L.O. case, warrantless searches in school contexts are permitted because schools have what the Court deemed “special needs” to maintain and enforce disciplinary procedures. Teachers, coaches, and administrators stand in loco parentis over children; thus they have the custodial and tutelary obligations to protect the children’s health and well-being.
Additionally, the majority decision argued that volunteer student-athletes choose to participate in activities that are closely regulated and are informed of the regular intrusion upon the normal rights and privileges of other students, including privacy. For example, they willingly subject themselves to an even higher degree of regulation, as they must submit to a preseason physical examination, show proof of insurance, maintain a minimum grade-point average, and comply with the rules of conduct as determined by the sport.
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- Vernonia School District 47J v. Acton et ux., Guardians ad Litem for Acton (No. 94-590) 515 U.S. 646. (n.d.).
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