On March 12, 2008, the Washington State Supreme Court rules that drug testing public school students without individualized suspicion violates the state constitution. The ruling concludes a nine-year legal battle between the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the small Wahkiakum School District in Southwest Washington over the district's policy of randomly testing student athletes in an effort to deter student drug use. Although the U.S. Supreme Court has held that the federal constitution permits such programs, the state's highest court concludes that the state constitution does not. The case is seen as a landmark for student rights and for the protection of personal freedom in Washington.
Controversy over Student Drug Testing
Washington boasts a state constitution that prizes individual freedom and provides stronger protections for personal privacy than does its federal counterpart. An object lesson came when a dispute in a small Washington school district sparked a nine-year legal case that resulted in a landmark ruling by the Washington State Supreme Court.
The Wahkiakum School District, serving Wahkiakum County, which lies along the Columbia River in Southwest Washington, had about 500 students in the 1990s. Concerned about student alcohol and drug use, the district established an advisory committee to examine the problem. A survey by the committee found 42 percent of district seniors admitted to having used drugs. In 1999, at the committee's recommendation, the district began testing student athletes for drugs and alcohol. It was a program of random testing -- that is, without suspicion that the individuals tested were using illegal substances.
Each week, one middle schooler and two high schoolers were selected to provide a specimen of their urine to a health-department employee, who sent it to a toxicology lab for analysis. If the testing found drugs were present, the student was barred from participating in extracurricular athletics. Any student unable to provide a sample without a medical reason was deemed a drug user and restricted similarly. District officials asserted that the program was an effective way to prevent and to deter teenage drug use. They said that its random nature provided greater privacy than testing only those students suspected of using drugs because there was no stigma if peers learned someone had been asked to give a urine sample.
Wahkiakum's action did not escape notice by the state branch of the American Civil Liberties Union, which had consistently contended that urine testing without individual suspicion that a student was using illegal drugs violated constitutional rights. Whenever it heard that a school district was looking at such drug testing, the ACLU of Washington sent a letter with legal analysis and a threat to sue and the district typically backed off. Many districts wouldn't even consider drug testing for fear of becoming embroiled in controversy and potentially costly litigation.
In the ACLU's eyes, as explained by Legal Program Director Julya Hampton, "Forcing students to submit their urine to officials is a degrading practice that treats all student athletes as suspects" ("Appeals Court Halts ..."). The issue was near and dear to the heart of the civil liberties group, which was often a leader in advancing legal rights for public school students. It was a case brought by the ACLU that led the Washington State Supreme Court, in Kuehn v. Renton School District, to rule in 1985 against Hazen High School's attempt to search a student's luggage without individual suspicion prior to a school band trip.
Lengthy Legal Process
Despite the ACLU's position, the Wahkiakum School District continued the drug-testing program. In response, the ACLU filed suit in 1999 challenging the program's constitutionality. Plaintiffs were two sets of parents of Wahkiakum High School students: Hans and Katherine York and Paul and Sharon Schneider. Notably, Hans York was a deputy sheriff and Paul Schneider was a doctor who had been involved in drug rehabilitation. Hans York explained, "We object to the urine-testing policy as an unwarranted invasion of privacy. We want schools to teach our children to think critically, not to police them" ("Appeals Court Halts ...").
At first glance, the suit might have seemed a loser. The U.S. Supreme Court had already ruled against a challenge to a school program in Vernonia, Oregon, that required drug testing for student athletes without individual suspicion and Wahkiakum had modeled its program after Vernonia's. In its 1995 decision in Vernonia School District 47J v. Acton, the high court rebuffed arguments by parents who had refused to sign a drug-testing consent form for their son. The court reasoned that students have a reduced expectation of privacy and should expect intrusions on their normal rights if they chose to participate in school athletics. And in 2002, in Board of Education v. Earls, the court would uphold random testing by an Oklahoma school district.
However, these decisions were based on the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The ACLU argued that the policy of random testing violated Washington's state constitution -- specifically its "privacy clause" (Article I, Section 7), which states, "No person shall be disturbed in his private affairs, or his home invaded, without authority of law" (York, 163 Wn.2d at 306).
The ACLU case, York v. Wahkiakum School District No. 200, ended up making two trips through the courts. When a Wahkiakum County Superior Court judge denied a request for a preliminary injunction to halt the district's drug testing until the case was decided, the ACLU appealed to the Washington Court of Appeals. A commissioner of that court temporarily granted the injunction, but when the district agreed to stop testing until the superior court ruled, the Court of Appeals dismissed the appeal over the injunction as moot.
Back in Wahkiakum County Superior Court, in 2006, Judge Douglas Goelz ruled in favor of school officials, finding the drug-testing program a reasonable one that did not violate students' rights. Following that decision the district resumed testing and the ACLU appealed directly to the Washington State Supreme Court.
Overturning the lower court, the state's high court on March 12, 2008, issued a historic ruling. It held unanimously that Wahkiakum's drug-testing program violated the state constitution. The lead opinion was authored by Justice Richard Sanders, at times a bete noire for liberals but a jurist with a strong libertarian bent. His decision said that the program clearly lacked the requisite "authority of law" and warned its logic could open the door to testing all students. In a ringing endorsement of the importance of personal freedom, Sanders proclaimed that, "A student athlete has a genuine and fundamental privacy interest in controlling his or her own bodily functions" (York, 163 Wn.2d at 308).
The case drew three concurring opinions. While two suggested that suspicionless testing could be acceptable in narrowly defined circumstances, the unanimous ruling against Wahkiakum's effort was a powerful precedent to discourage other school districts. In her concurring opinion, Justice Barbara Madsen pointed out that the decision provided a valuable civics lesson. She observed that "suspicionless drug testing jeopardizes other important educational objectives, including preparing students to become responsible citizens who share a common understanding and appreciation of our constitutional values" (York, 163 Wn.2d. at 329).
Wahkiakum superintendent Bob Garrett regretted the end of the drug-testing program that he saw as benefiting students: "Kids were telling us the policy's working ... Because of the policy they were using less or not at all" (Mathieu, "Wahkiakum School Chief Laments ..."). But the ACLU celebrated the court's action. Staff Attorney Aaron Caplan said, "The court recognized that officials should not violate individual privacy when there is no reason to believe that a student has done anything wrong" ("State Supreme Court Rules Against ..."). Both sides understood that the landmark case meant educators would be relying on other measures to address student drug use.