Could routine drug tests, like metal detectors, soon become an accepted part of daily life at many American high schools?
That question was before the Supreme Court on Tuesday, and at least several justices indicated that they saw no constitutional problem with requiring all students to undergo regular drug tests, just as they take physical exams now.
There is a "nationwide drug problem in the schools" which is not limited to a few students or to big cities, said Justice Anthony M. Kennedy. "Why are there not grounds for schoolwide testing?"
Under the Constitution, adults cannot be searched or tested by authorities without some specific evidence that they have violated the law, but the rule does not apply to minors, another justice noted.
"Students are kids. You're dealing with children. You're not dealing with adults," Justice Antonin Scalia said, chiding an attorney who disputed the legality of random drug tests at school.
When the lawyer representing a 15-year-old boy from rural Oregon said he opposed a urinalysis on grounds that it would violate a child's right to privacy, Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist scoffed: "How much privacy is there in a boys' locker room with urinals lining the wall?"
The exchanges took place during a lively argument Tuesday over an Oregon school district's policy of requiring its athletes, in seventh grade and above, to submit to urinalysis at the start of the season and random drug tests thereafter.
The drug culture reached the small logging town of Vernonia, northwest of Portland, in the late 1980s, school officials said, and the students were in a "state of rebellion." However, five years of drug testing turned up only two or three instances of students using illegal narcotics, they said. The test did not check for alcohol or steroids.
The case (Vernonia School District vs. Acton, 94-590) has been closely watched by educators because it could clear away legal barriers to widespread drug testing in public schools and colleges.
Ten years ago, the high court gave principals and teachers the authority to search school lockers and girls' purses for drugs, but the justices have yet to rule on drug tests for students.
Key courts in California split on the issue last year. Upholding drug tests for college athletes, the California Supreme Court said that the right to privacy in the California Constitution does not bar regular drug testing of presumably innocent students. However, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals struck down the Oregon school district's policy last year as a violation of the Fourth Amendment's ban on unreasonable searches and seizures. But the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear the school district's appeal.
"You don't need urine testing to punish and deter disorderly behavior in school," said Thomas Christ, an attorney for the ACLU Foundation of Oregon. Submitting to a compelled urine test is "an intrusive, degrading experience" for a student, he asserted.
Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, a moderate who may be the deciding vote, wondered why the district had not first tried testing the few students who showed signs of drug use.
The justices will meet in private Friday to vote on the case and are expected to issue a written ruling by late June.