Vernonia School District v. Acton, 515 U.S. 646 (1995)

2012-09-21 15:47:17

In 1991, a seventh-grade student named James Acton wanted to play football at a grade school in Vernonia, Oregon. Before being allowed to play, however, the school district required him and his parents to sign forms consenting to drug testing. James and his parents refused to sign the consent forms, and, as a consequence, James’ school prohibited him from playing football. After James’ school prohibited him from playing football, the Actons filed suit against the school district claiming inter alia that the district’s Student Athlete Drug Policy (the ‘‘Drug Policy’’) violated James’ Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures. The case made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court where six of the nine justices decided that the Drug Policy was reasonable and hence constitutional.

In upholding the Drug Policy, the Court first made it clear that the Astate-compelled collection and testing of urine—as required by the Drug Policy, was a search that was subject to the Fourth Amendment’s demand that government searches be reasonable. The Court then found that the search was reasonable by examining five factors.

The Court recognized that underlying the prohibition of unreasonable searches was a citizen’s interest in protecting her privacy. Thus, the first factor that the Court considered was the nature of the privacy interest of the persons affected by the policy. The Court found that the athletes involved had a lower expectation of privacy than the average citizen for a variety of reasons. One, the athletes involved were minors, and minors traditionally are subject to the control of their parents and guardians. In addition, the athletes were in public school and, as the Court found in New Jersey v. T.L.O., public schools may closely supervise and guide the children in its care. Thus, although the Court in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District found that children do not Ashed their constitutional rights at the schoolhouse gate, the rights of public school children are different from those of the general populace. Furthermore, given that schools routinely require students to submit to various medical procedures, students within the school environment have a lesser expectation of privacy than members of the population generally. Finally, student athletes have a lesser expectation of privacy than nonathletes because they shower and dress without any aspect of privacy and because by going out for the team they voluntarily subject themselves to greater intrusions on their privacy.

With regard to the second factor, the character of the intrusion on the students’ privacy, the court found the intrusion to be negligible, because the students remain fully clothed and the males are only observed from behind, whereas the females are in stalls. Furthermore, the Court felt that the test itself was not very intrusive mainly because the urinalysis tested only for certain drugs and only for the purpose of helping the student, rather than punishing the student. The third and fourth factors involve the nature and immediacy of the governmental concern that led to the enactment of the statute. Here the Court found that deterring drug use by schoolchildren was an important and, perhaps, compelling government interest. Furthermore, the concern was immediate because a large segment of the student body, particularly those involved in interscholastic athletics, was in a state of rebellion, that ‘‘[d]isciplinary actions had reached ‘epidemic proportions,’’’ and that the rebellion was being fueled by alcohol and drug abuse as well as by the student’s misperceptions about the drug culture.

The final factor examined by the Court concerned the efficacy of the means chosen to address the government’s concern. Here the Court found that a drug problem that is fueled in large part by the role model—the effect of athletes’ drug use—and that is of particular danger to such athletes will be effectively addressed by a program that ensures that athletes do not use drugs.

In Vernonia, the Court continued the trend of granting fewer constitutional protections to minors in school because of the nature of the minor’s place in society.


Cases and Statutes Cited

  • New Jersey v. T.L.O., 469 U.S. 325 (1985)
  • Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, 393 U.S. 503 (1969)