By Kenny Berkowitz
As school districts around the country consider drug tests for student-athletes, attention recently turned to Washington, where the state supreme court declared the Wahkiakum School District's random drug-testing program unconstitutional.
Ever since the 1999-2000 school year, when half of its student-athletes self-identified as drug or alcohol users, Washington State’s Wahkiakum School District has had random drug tests. As a condition of playing extracurricular sports, every student-athlete agrees to be tested and anyone found with drugs or alcohol in their urine is suspended from participation.
But last month, the Washington State Supreme Court unanimously ruled that random tests violate the privacy clause of the state constitution, which guarantees that “no person shall be disturbed in his private affairs, or his home invaded, without authority of law.” Without a warrant, said the court, singling out student-athletes for random testing deprived athletes of their protection from unreasonable searches and seizures.
“No argument has been presented that would bring the random drug testing within any reasonable interpretation of the constitutionally required authority of law,” wrote Justice Richard Sanders in the court’s plurality opinion. “We cannot countenance random searches of public school student-athletes.”
The response was quick and the implications far-reaching.
“We're pleased," said Doug Honig of the Seattle office of the American Civil Liberties Union, which represented two student-athletes who had brought the original suit, to the Daily News Online. “School districts around the state have been looking to this decision for guidance about whether suspicionless drug testing of students is constitutional. The answer is ‘no.’”
Pointing to a 2007 study by Oregon Health and Science University, Honig argues that random drug testing doesn’t deter students from using drugs or alcohol. But in Wahkiakum, where students were surveyed one year after drug-testing began, superintendent Fred Garrett believes the program was working.
Garrett is unsure what Wahkiakum will do next. The district had based its policy on a drug-testing program in Washington’s Vernonia School District, which was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1995. In that decision, the court ruled that if a school could prove the existence of a drug problem—as Wahkiakum thought it had done in its student survey—then random drug testing didn’t violate the Fourth Amendment’s guarantee against unreasonable searches.
So why did the state supreme court rule against them? Although justices recognized the existence of a problem, they faulted Wahkiakum for holding student-athletes to a higher standard than other students and randomly testing individual athletes without prior suspicion.
“Simply passing muster under the federal constitution,” they wrote, “does not ensure the survival of the school district's policy under our state constitution.”
In the nearby Cle Elum-Roslyn School District, administrators immediately suspended its program, which randomly tested all students participating in extracurricular activities.
“Personally I was disappointed,” Superintendent Mark Flatau told the Seattle Times. “I view our policy as one that provides our youth a reason to say ‘no’ when pressured in regard to alcohol and drugs.”
At other school districts across the country, administrators are wrestling with similar problems. In Montana, where the state constitution provides privacy protections that are even stronger than Washington’s, Whitefish (Missoula) High School is considering urine testing as a precondition for participation in any extracurricular activities.
“Last fall, seven of our nine sports programs had issues with partying, drugs, and alcohol use,” Superintendent Jerry House told the Missoulian. “One solution is to blanket the programs with random testing.”
In West Virginia’s Cabell County, Huntington High School will begin drug-testing all of its student-athletes in the coming school year, with a handful of companies bidding for the contract. According to a story in the Herald-Dispatch, student-athletes who are found with drugs or alcohol in their system will be sent to counseling for a first offense and suspended from participation after a second offense.
In Ohio, where Bucyrus High School has been testing participants in extracurricular activities for the last three years, Athletic Director Tom Jeffrey thinks the program is working.
“Drugs are more and more prevalent in today's society," Jeffrey said to the Mansfield News Journal. "Do I think they're bad kids? No. They're young. They make mistakes. But if you don't catch it early, it's going to be tougher and tougher to stop.”
Starting in 2008-09, the Illinois High School Association (IHSA) will institute one of the stiffest drug-testing programs in the country, which will include more than 50 substances banned by the IHSA and suspend offending students from participating in athletics for one year.
“The intent of this program isn’t to catch kids cheating,” Kurt Gibson, Assistant Executive Director for the IHSA told the Galesburg Register-Mail. “The aim is to serve as a deterrent.”
In Bucks County, Penn., 14 school districts are considering applying for a federal government grant to begin randomly testing all their students for drugs and alcohol.
“Random drug testing might seem at first glance to be a harsh measure, but time has shown that students soon appreciate the ‘out’ the program provides," said district spokeswoman Karen Smith. "A student can choose to say no to drugs or alcohol, and save face among his/her peers.”
In Georgia’s Hall County, high school student-athletes are currently mandated to undergo mandatory random drug tests for amphetamines, barbiturates, cocaine, opiates, and pain killers, but not steroids.
“It’s not that we’re not interested in performance-enhancing drugs,” Gordon Higgins, Hall County Director of Athletics, told the Gainesville Times. “We are, but steroid tests cost around $200 per panel. Once it becomes cost-effective, we will absolutely do it."
And in northern Michigan, Traverse City Central High School Athletic Director Cody Inglis believes random drug-testing for steroids should be made available, even if a problem doesn’t currently exist.
“My belief is that it’s a relatively small percentage [of students],” he told mlive.com. “I think performance-enhancing drugs are barely reaching high school athletes. [But] given the trickle down-effect you have from majors to colleges to here, randomized drug testing would be something valuable. If the financial resources were there, I would be investigating as much as I could.”
Athletic Management recently covered steroid testing in its February/March 2008 cover story, “Safe from Steroids?”
Kenny Berkowitz is an Assistant Editor at Athletic Management.