US District Court Overturns Mandatory Drug Tests in Texas School, Lockney Policy Was Nation's Broadest 3/16/01

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Although the US Supreme Court opined in its 1995 Vernonia ruling that anti-drug goals justified the drug testing of student athletes and those involved in extracurricular activities, US District Judge Sam Cummings drew a line in the West Texas sand when he struck down the Lockney Independent School District's year-old mandatory drug testing policy for all of its junior and senior high school students.

"Hallelujah," was Larry Tannahill's response. It was Tannahill who sued the district on behalf of his 12-year-old son, Brady. Tannahill has spent the last year in a lonely struggle for what he believed was right in a community where the school drug-testing program had overwhelming popular support. Town residents rallied in the hundreds in support of the policy, Tannahill suffered increasing social ostracism, and even reporters have been the objects of locals' wrath over coverage of the issue. Tannahill found himself vindicated last week.

Unless the Lockney school board decides to appeal -- it has so far deferred that decision -- the ruling will mark the end of the nation's broadest school drug testing policy. Along with a similar ruling on a case from nearby Tulia, the Lockney ruling sends a signal to school boards across the land about the limits of the permissible when it comes to waging the drug war in the nation's schools.

A little more than a year ago, Lockney's school board instituted a policy of mandatory, random drug tests of all teachers and students. Parents were asked to sign consent forms, and if they refused, their children were to be treated as if they had failed the drug test. The first-time penalty was a 21-day ban from extracurricular activities, three days of in-school suspension, and three sessions of drug counseling.

School officials said the drug tests were necessary for public health, to increase students' ability to learn, to help them resist peer pressure, and because of a perceived drug problem. The farming town of 2,300 people saw 12 people arrested in a 1998 cocaine bust -- all adults -- but has shown few indications of drug activity since then.

Tannahill refused to sign the consent form. "Every person has a right to his own opinion, and I do not think they can enforce this," he told the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal after the policy was announced. "It's just a matter of principle for me... I cannot let the school say, 'I know how to raise your child better than you.' What scares me the most, if I do not sign it, they are going to punish my child for what I do, and I definitely do not think that's right."

Although the school district eventually agreed to postpone any punishment of Brady Tannahill while the dispute lingered, Tannahill soon picked up support from the ACLU of Texas. Lawyers affiliated with the civil liberties group represented him when he brought suit against the district for violating his son's Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment rights against unreasonable searches and seizures.

"We're upset," ACLU Lubbock chapter member Harvey Madison told the Avalanche-Journal. "This is exactly the kind of abuse the founding fathers were trying to protect people from when they wrote the Bill of Rights. We do not live in a fascist country, and the government is not entitled to simply declare that it can conduct intrusive searches of everyone with no reason."

Last week, while expressing sympathy for the school board's motives, Judge Cummings saw it the same way.

"The court recognizes the good-faith efforts of school districts in their attempts to win what has become a frustrating war on drugs; it understands the motives of the district to protect its students," Cummings wrote. "The court further recognizes that given advancements in technology and research, a mandatory drug policy of testing every teenage student could potentially eliminate drug use for such an impressionable segment of our population," he continued.

"But with such an intrusion also comes a great price to citizens' constitutionally guaranteed rights to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects."

Will Harrell, executive director of the Texas ACLU told DRCNet the ruling was "an absolute, resounding victory."

"This is a strong testament that there are still courts with the courage to stand up for individual freedom in the face of the drug-war hysteria that has besieged our nation," Harrell said. "The law has clarified that this policy is unconstitutional as applied."

Harrell urged the Lockney school board not to appeal. "I hope they will respect the courts and let Mr. Tannahill get on with his life. He has been vindicated today and he should be honored for standing up to what is obviously an unconstitutional practice," Harrell told DRCNet.

"This ruling is a signal bell to end of all of these ridiculous and unconstitutional drug testing policies," Harrell continued. "It's not the first, but I hope it's the last of a long line of federal decisions that make clear students don't abandon their constitutional rights at the school house gate."

Cummings' decision to overturn the Lockney policy was foreshadowed in December, when US District Court Judge Mary Lou Robinson of Amarillo threw out a more restrictive school drug-testing policy in the panhandle town of Tulia, now notorious for its massive drug bust targeting the small town's African-American population (http://www.drcnet.org/wol/154.html#tulia). In the Tulia case, the school district required drug tests for all students in grades 7-12 who wanted to participate in extracurricular activities.

But Robinson ruled that the policy violated constitutional protections against unwarranted search and seizure, writing: "This Court concludes that the mandatory, random, suspicionless drug testing program for all students participating in extracurricular activities at Tulia ISD is violative of the Fourth Amendment."

In the wake of the rulings, school officials are rethinking plans for drug testing. In the Texas Panhandle town of Brownfield, School Superintendent Charles Harrison told the Avalanche-Journal he will be watching to see if there are appeals.

"What we're doing is following the case, and until we get a definite ruling and some parameters in how to distribute drug tests, we're not interested in starting one," he said. "We have just been really slow in putting something in place until we knew for sure what was legal and what was not."

The Texas ACLU's Harrell also told DRCNet that Brownfield wasn't alone in reconsidering testing students for drugs.

"Policies that were put on hold pending resolution of the Lockney case are now permanently on hold," said Harrell. "The dynamics of local politics are such that school board members campaign on a "tough on drugs" platform, but school superintendents are beginning to understand that when you impose an unconstitutional policy, it's going to cost them. The superintendents would rather spend school district funds on books than on losing court cases."

The Lockney ruling's impact could extend beyond Texas, according to Julie Underwood, general counsel for the National School Boards Association.

"We got a flurry of calls after the ruling was announced," she told DRCNet. "While school boards typically ask their own attorneys about the legality of various testing policies, they asked us if we have drafted a policy. We don't have a national policy, though, because of the variation in state laws."

"The association does not have an official position on student drug testing," said Underwood. "We take the position that school districts should be able to keep their campuses safe, but they must uphold students' rights as well. We encourage districts to have a reasonable policy, meaning if they don't have an individualized suspicion of drug use, they must have clear evidence of a drug problem to justify testing," she said.

"Many school districts have no need for a drug testing policy," Underwood noted.

The full text of the Tannahill v. Lockney decision can be found at http://cryptome.org/tannahill.htm online.

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Issue #177, 3/16/01 Dedication: Patrick Dorismond | Students Helping Students, HEA Update | Colombian Governors Come to Washington to Denounce Plan Colombia, DRCNet Interviews Tolima Governor Jaramillo | US District Court Overturns Mandatory Drug Tests in Texas School, Lockney Policy Was Nation's Broadest | Drug Reform Battle Heats Up in New York: Pataki Package Would Increase Marijuana Penalties, Democrats Offer Alternative Bills, Activists Don't Like Either Version | New Mexico Update: Ups and Downs for Johnson's Reform Package, State GOP in an Uproar | In Another Step on Path to Cannabis Decrim, Swiss Government Submits Proposed Law to Parliament | Hemispheric Parliamentarians Reject Debate on Drug Legalization | Uruguayan Leader Takes Legalization Views Online, Recommends Traffic | Narco News: Mexican Federal Police Chief Calls for Legalization, Bush Adds Another Half Billion to Colombia Fire | San Francisco Conference Looks at Women and the Drug War | Job Listing: Access Works! in Minneapolis | The Reformer's Calendar | Editorial: The Rule of Law
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