Case Review: Board Of Education Of Independent School District No. 92 Of Pottawatomie County V. Earls, 536 U.s. 822 (2002)

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In the case involving the Board of Education of Independent School District No. 92 of Pottawatomie County v. Earls, 536 U.S. 822 (2002), the plaintiffs were Lindsay Earls and Daniel James, both students at the Tecumseh High School. Other plaintiffs were the parents of the two students. The defendants included the Board of Education of Independent School District No. 92 of Pottawatomie County and the Tecumseh High School.

The plaintiffs sought to contest a policy mandating drug testing policy for all students taking part in co-curricular activities in Tecumseh and schools within the district. They wanted to take part in the Academic Team but would not, as they argued the policy violated their privacy as enshrined in the Fourth Amendment of the American Constitution. Both students wanted an “injunctive and declarative relief” (Legal Information Institute, n.d.). In doing so, they asserted that Tecumseh High School had no proper grounds for imposing drug testing on students before they can take part in extracurricular activities.

Among the critical facts delineated by the court was that the plaintiffs, were, in fact, students of Tecumseh High School; that the school adopted the mandatory drug search and testing policy and imposed it on all students willing to take part in extracurricular activities; and, that the school only pinned it on competitive events. 

The issue the court was addressing was whether the school district and Tecumseh’s drug testing rule contravened the Fourth Amendment constitutional rights of the plaintiffs. Drawing from the Vernonia precedent on special needs, the court held that, since the students willingly participated in the extracurricular activities, the policy was the only way Tecumseh High School could prevent and deter use of drugs among students. Thus, it did not contravene the Fourth Amendment rights of the plaintiffs (Legal Information Institute, n.d.).

In summary, the rationale of the court was that, first, everyone participating in athletics has a limited promise of privacy. Often, people taking part in extracurricular activities engage in communal undressing and open bathrooms that diminish their expectations of privacy. Furthermore, Tecumseh High School demonstrated that the results of the test were confidential and would not be shown or revealed to anyone, even the police. The only consequence of positive results would be the students being banned from taking part in the school’s extracurricular activities. Therefore, the argument regarding the invasion of privacy was invalid.

On the question of ‘reasonableness’ and ‘special needs,’ the court’s rationale was that the drug testing was the only way that Tecumseh High School could stop drug use in the institution. The available evidence of drug use among school-going children gave the school sufficient grounds to adopt and run the policy. However, the court did not put the school to task in demonstrating the existence of a pervasive drug problem in the institution that would necessitate such tests. Therefore, the policy served the school board’s special need of keeping their institution drug free and nurturing responsible adults in the country. To this end, it was reasonable from all angles. The Supreme Court contented with the defendants that the policy was constitutional and did not contravene any aspect of the Fourth Amendment.

In reaching a conclusion on privacy in this case, the court drew from a previous case, 515 U. S., at 652, Vernonia. The case set the precedence that privacy was, in fact, not a valid argument in the case of a public school. The Vernonia case concluded that, just like a parent, a school is charged with the responsibility to be a guardian of all children and protect them from harmful or destructive behavior. In doing so, a balancing has to be done between privacy rights and the need to protect the children. Notably, when protecting children, their welfare often wins. At the same time, if children decide to take part in a public school's extracurricular activities willingly, they also consent to the additional rules that govern them. The two plaintiffs were no unique and would not expect any different treatment from the rest of the students who relinquished their privacy rights to participate in the school’s extracurricular activities.

Again, in comparison, intrusion in the Vernonia case was more significant. In this case, the specimen from all students would be provided in a total enclosure. In contrast, in the Vernonia case, only the female students enjoyed such privileges, making the two incomparable regarding privacy. The court, therefore, concluded that the level of privacy infringement was ‘negligible’ (Legal Information Institute, n.d.). It goes on to make no sense considering the level of privacy that the students already relinquished when they decided to be part of a community of athletes.

Similarly, the matter of drugs is not just a school’s concern but also one that extends beyond the bounds of the institution into a national platform. The government is especially interested in tackling the issue of drugs and eradicating drug use among its citizens. Since rampant adult drug users may have started while young and in schools, it makes sense that the policy is applicable in Tecumseh High School. The court deemed it efficient and effective in meeting the interests of the government in achieving a drug-free nation and healthy children. In the Vernonia case, the health and safety risks of drug use were profoundly examined and stated. The same applied to this case where the defendant even produced evidence of students using drugs in Tecumseh High School. The evidence made the policy and the court’s rationale even more reasonable and relevant.

The dissenting judges included Justice O’Connor, Souter, Ginsburg, and Stevens. The judges were not contented with the proof of 'special needs' presented and argued that the needs were not sufficient to warrant any search and drug test policy that a school imposes on students (Legal Information Institute, n.d.). They considered the testing program to be capricious and one whose target population would be least affected by extreme risks of illicit drugs. Another dissenting argument was that the target population was too small to make the policy reasonable under whatever circumstance. The dissenting judges argued that the drug problem would affect all students, thus instituting a management policy just for a small population of the students made it unable to fulfill any special needs, rendering it unreasonable. Testing only students taking part in the extracurricular activities makes the policy seem to be countering its entire purpose of existence. Again, the argument that extracurricular activities were voluntary was invalid because they formed part of the mandatory school program, and students were expected to take part in some of them. The evidence that the School District provided did not sufficiently demonstrate the immediacy and gravity of the drug threat in the school or anywhere else. Lastly, the court may have underestimated the level of intrusion to which urinalysis subjected the students. Justice O’Connor maintained that since he dissented in the Vernonia case on similar grounds, he would not change his stance on this one.

I do not agree with the opinion of the court. As already noted above, the court resolved that the policy was ‘reasonable’ and met ‘special needs’ requirement for such tests and did not contravene any privacy provisions of the Fourth Amendment. First, the court was right in declaring that drugs and substance use were a matter of national significance and particular concern for the government. The CDC (2019) reported that 14% of adolescents in high school were using illicit drugs such as inhalants and ecstasy, among others. 39% and 36% of high school students were using marijuana in 2015 and 2017, respectively (U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, 2019). These figures undoubtedly verify the court’s opinion that drug use among the American youth was a grave matter of national concern. However, instead of cementing the 'special needs' requirement, the figures reveal that the law was unreasonable. In particular, such matters of great concern should attract holistic policies that seek to manage the problem from a universal point of view. It would have been interesting to hear how the court would support that the strategy actually worked to solve the issue of drug use among the youth. The policy applied to a minuscule population, just approximately one percent of the school's total number of students, which is an insignificant figure. For all the judges knew, the policy would address the issue of drug abuse among the youth, but they never bothered to what extent or how. The court’s opinion, in this sense, would have been valid if the application of the policy was extensive enough to holistically address the problem, at least within the entire school, not just among those who engage in extracurricular activities.

On the same note, there are numerous reasons drug tests are done, and some have nothing to do with the national interests or 'special needs' of the country. According to Scottsdale Recovery Center (2018), one of the reasons for searching and drug testing athletes is to promote fair play. In this case, it is a fulfillment of requirements of the rules of the game that players must compete uniformly without some having an unfair advantage. Exploring this reason, one finds that some drug tests have absolutely nothing to do with national interests but the protection of the reputation of a school and its players. Testing in the prevailing case was more concerned with promoting fair play rather than national importance because it applied just to the athletes or students who sought to join the Academic Team. The judges failed to expand their scope and explore other possible reasons for the testing while upholding the justification that perhaps aligned with their beliefs. In this regard, Tecumseh’s search and test policy did not meet the threshold of ‘reasonableness’ and failed to fulfill the requirements of ‘special needs.’ Perhaps these glaring omissions happened because of the summary trial, which, nonetheless, is not an excuse for failure to deliver justice (Legal Information Institute, n.d.).

Again, in delivering their ruling that reversed the suit, the judges may have underestimated the level of privacy violation and inefficiency involved in urinalysis. It is more intrusive than what the defendants demonstrated. NORML (n.d.) states that urinalysis subjects people, some even innocent, to the scrutiny of one of their most intimate body fluids in an utterly humiliating manner. The fact that Tecumseh’s tests are confidential could be a reason for them not to reveal how many students they coerce into taking these unreasonable tests. NORML (n.d.) adds that there is a likelihood that drug tests such as urinalysis can return a false positive. Apart from the false positives, these tests especially in this case, were purely based on trial and error. In particular, the responsible bodies, even without any specific suspicion or reason, conducted the tests simply because the students wanted to join the Academic Team. It did not matter whether the students were innocent or not. They would be subjected to unreliable procedures whose results had not notable usefulness. As a result, they not only immensely violate the privacy of the victims but are also unreliable. The current advancement in medical technology promises other less intrusive methods of conducting such tests. The judges failed to take any of these into consideration but, instead, dwelt only on claims that the tests served a greater purpose, even if they did not as has been seen. Based on the above discussion, I greatly disagree with the court’s opinion. While a small portion of the opinions that informed the ruling was accurate, a greater percentage was flawed. Perhaps the summary trial prevented judges from exploring the case deeply; thus, delivering a potentially wrong ruling. I, therefore, opt to join the dissenting judges.

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GradShark (2023). Case Review: Board of Education of Independent School District No. 92 of Pottawatomie County v. Earls, 536 U.S. 822 (2002). GradShark.

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