Court Lets Ind. Schools' Drug Tests Stand
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 6, 1998; Page A3
The Supreme Court yesterday let an Indiana high school continue requiring students to take drug tests if they want to participate in extracurricular activities, even if they are not suspected of using drugs.
The justices, on the first day of their new term, refused to take up an appeal of a lower ruling that said schools may force students to provide urine samples under monitored conditions as a way of deterring illegal drugs. Lawyers for parents and students who had protested the ruling said it "represents a significant and unwarranted erosion of" students' privacy rights and protection against unreasonable searches. But school officials in Rush County, Ind., called the program a reasonable, effective way to curb drug use, particularly before it reaches epidemic proportions.
The high court rejected the appeal without comment, and while the denial sets no national precedent, civil libertarians said the action would embolden public schools to step up the wide-scale use of drug tests.
"This is an issue being faced by school districts all over the country," said Kenneth J. Falk of the Indiana Civil Liberties Union. "I certainly think schools now will go as far as the [Rush County policy] goes. But more guidance is needed from the court" on a national standard.
When the Supreme Court last ruled on student drug testing, in 1995, it permitted an Oregon drug testing policy that was confined to student athletes. The Indiana policy applies not only to sports activities but to everything from the school Library Club to the Future Farmers of America.
All told, the justices acted on more than 1,600 appeals that had been filed during their summer recess. But the drug testing case was one of the most closely watched because it arises from nationwide efforts by schools to steer students away from drugs, in part through increased urinalysis testing. Such policies, particularly when used on students not suspected of drug use, invoke Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable searches, and parents and students have repeatedly challenged the tests in courts.
In the Rush County schools case, William P. and Diana J. Todd sued the school district on behalf of their son, William Matthew, a freshman who volunteered to videotape the football team at after-school events.
In rejecting the Todds' challenge to the mandatory drug testing, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit, which covers Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin, said, "[S]uccessful extracurricular activities require healthy students." The court's three-judge panel said the program was similar enough to the Oregon athletes' drug-testing requirement that the Supreme Court upheld in 1995.
The full 7th Circuit refused to hear the case, with dissenting justices asserting that "the broad-brushed reading of" the high court's 1995 ruling "takes us a long way toward condoning drug-testing in the general school population."
In another school's case, the justices rejected an appeal by a North Carolina drama teacher who had been disciplined by a school board for putting on a controversial play depicting a dysfunctional family.
Separately yesterday, the justices announced they will hear a new case testing how easy it should be for disabled workers to sue their employers for discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act when the workers also receive Social Security disability benefits. A federal appeals court ruled that if a worker receives disability benefits, a judge should presume that the worker is barred from claiming she is a "qualified individual with a disability" and entitled to sue an employer for bias.
The case involves a woman named Carolyn Cleveland, who worked for Policy Management Systems Corp. until she suffered a stroke and had trouble speaking. Cleveland applied for Social Security disability benefits, but after a few months she was able to return to work. She notified the Social Security Administration of her changed condition. Cleveland claimed the company failed to make several accommodations, including computer training, to help her do her job. Finally, she was fired.
She reapplied for benefits and also sued the company for discrimination. The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against Cleveland, pointing out the inconsistency in a person saying they are totally disabled and unable to work, and then saying they are able to perform the essential functions of a job if only the proper accommodations are made. For those who have once claimed to be totally disabled, the court said, the bar for making a claim under the ADA should be higher.
That ruling conflicts with more lenient standards set by other courts, and the justices will resolve the split in the case of Cleveland v. Policy Management Systems Corp.
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