U.S. Supreme Court Rules on Random Drug Testing in Schools Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that public schools may require student athletes to submit to random drug tests as a condition of their participation in interscholastic sports.

Summary of Event

In the mid-1980’s, teachers and administrators in the public schools in Vernonia, Oregon, began noticing a sharp and progressive increase in drug and alcohol abuse among students, as well as disciplinary problems. Of particular concern were the deleterious effects of alcohol and drug abuse on student athletes, who were not only more susceptible to physical injury than students generally but also believed to be the leaders of the schools’ drug culture. Vernonia School District 47J v. Acton (1995) Supreme Court, U.S.;drug testing in schools Schools;drug testing [kw]U.S. Supreme Court Rules on Random Drug Testing in Schools (June 26, 1995) [kw]Supreme Court Rules on Random Drug Testing in Schools, U.S. (June 26, 1995) [kw]Court Rules on Random Drug Testing in Schools, U.S. Supreme (June 26, 1995) [kw]Drug Testing in Schools, U.S. Supreme Court Rules on Random (June 26, 1995) [kw]Schools, U.S. Supreme Court Rules on Random Drug Testing in (June 26, 1995) Vernonia School District 47J v. Acton (1995) Supreme Court, U.S.;drug testing in schools Schools;drug testing [g]North America;June 26, 1995: U.S. Supreme Court Rules on Random Drug Testing in Schools[09240] [g]United States;June 26, 1995: U.S. Supreme Court Rules on Random Drug Testing in Schools[09240] [c]Civil rights and liberties;June 26, 1995: U.S. Supreme Court Rules on Random Drug Testing in Schools[09240] [c]Laws, acts, and legal history;June 26, 1995: U.S. Supreme Court Rules on Random Drug Testing in Schools[09240] [c]Education;June 26, 1995: U.S. Supreme Court Rules on Random Drug Testing in Schools[09240] Scalia, Antonin O’Connor, Sandra Day Acton, James

In 1989, after making unsuccessful efforts to deter students’ drug and alcohol use through education, the local school board, with parental approval, instituted a compulsory drug-testing policy for all student athletes. Every student wishing to participate in interscholastic athletics was required to sign a form consenting to the drug testing and to obtain a parent’s written consent as well. At the beginning of each season of competition, every student athlete was tested; then, throughout the season, 10 percent of the student athletes were tested at random. James Acton, a seventh-grade student, signed up to play district-supported football, but his parents refused to consent to the drug testing. The parents of James Acton then sued the school district.

After the trial court dismissed the lawsuit, the Actons appealed. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit struck down the school district’s policy, saying that it violated the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Fourth Amendment (U.S. Constitution) The Fourth Amendment guarantees citizens freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures; it reads, “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath of affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.” The school district then requested review of the decision from the U.S. Supreme Court.

In Vernonia School District 47J v. Acton (1995), the U.S. Supreme Court, by a vote of six to three, reversed the decision of the Ninth Circuit, declaring that the school district’s policy did not amount to unreasonable search and seizure under the Fourth Amendment. The Court’s opinion was written by Associate Justice Antonin Scalia; he was joined by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist Rehnquist, William H. and Associate Justices Anthony Kennedy, Kennedy, Anthony Clarence Thomas, Thomas, Clarence Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Ginsburg, Ruth Bader and Stephen G. Breyer. Breyer, Stephen G. Although the justices acknowledged that state-compelled drug testing constitutes a search subject to the demands of the Fourth Amendment, they determined that the school district’s testing scheme fit squarely within the “special needs” exception to the Fourth Amendment. This exception holds that an administrative search—a search that is not executed as a pretext for obtaining evidence of criminal activity—does not require either a warrant or individualized suspicion so long as the search is a reasonable one.

To determine reasonableness, the Court balanced the strength of the student’s privacy interest guaranteed by the Fourth Amendment against any legitimate governmental interest in conducting the search. First considering the individual privacy interest of the student, the opinion noted that unemancipated minors and public school students, because they are in the temporary custody of the state as “schoolmaster,” have a lesser expectation of privacy than do adults. Moreover, those expectations are even less for student athletes, who voluntarily subject themselves to a degree of regulation higher than that imposed on students generally. “Public school locker rooms . . . are not notable for the privacy they afford,” Justice Scalia wrote.

Finally, because the drug-testing procedures presented conditions of collection that were “nearly identical” to the conditions typically encountered in public restrooms, the Court noted, the nature of the intrusion was negligible. (For the testing, each student athlete entered an empty locker room accompanied by an adult monitor of the same sex. Each male produced a urine sample while remaining fully clothed and with his back to the monitor. Each female produced a sample in an enclosed bathroom stall. The monitor listened for normal sounds of urination, checked the sample for temperature and tampering, and then transferred the sample to a vial.)

The Court then assessed the strength of the government’s interest in the drug testing by considering the nature and the immediacy of the government’s concern. The nature of the concern, the opinion held, was “important—indeed perhaps compelling.” The majority, as had the district court, agreed that drug use in schools has negative effects not only on the actual users but also on the entire student body and the faculty because of disruptions to the educative process. Additionally, the justices agreed that drug use presents substantial physical risks—reduction in the oxygen-carrying capacity of the blood and increased body temperature, for example—to student athletes in particular. Finally, the immediacy of the concern was heightened by the school district’s findings that drug use was increasing among the student body in large part because other students looked up to student athletes who were drug abusers themselves.

Given the decreased expectation of privacy among student athletes, the unobtrusive nature of the search, and the severity of the need met by the search, the Court held the policy to be reasonable and, therefore, constitutional.

Three justices—John Paul Stevens, Stevens, John Paul David Souter, Souter, David and Sandra Day O’Connor—disagreed. In an opinion written by Justice O’Connor, the dissenters found the policy unreasonable, and thus unconstitutional, for four primary reasons: First, the school board policy dispensed with the standard requirement of individualized suspicion; second, there was a strong basis for concluding that vigorous suspicion-based testing would have “gone a long way” toward solving the drug problem; third, there was no evidence at all of a drug problem at the actual grade school attended by James Acton; and fourth, the choice of student athletes as the class to subject to suspicionless testing was unreasonable. If the school district was really concerned about the rise in drug-related disorders and disruptions of the educative process, the dissenters noted, a far more reasonable course of action would have been to test those students who had violated published school rules against severe disruptions in class and around campus. In sum, the dissenters asserted, no justifiable reason existed to drug test every student athlete in the entire school district.


Vernonia School District 47J v. Acton marked the first time the U.S. Supreme Court had sustained the use of random, suspicionless drug testing outside the public employment context. It did so with some apprehension, however, cautioning against the assumption that suspicionless drug testing would readily pass “constitutional muster.” Even so, the Court extended the holding in Vernonia seven years later in the case of Board of Education of Independent School District No. 92 of Pottawatomie County v. Earls (2002), Board of Education of Independent School District No. 92 of Pottawatomie County v. Earls (2002) in which it upheld a public school policy that required suspicionless drug testing of all students who participated in any extracurricular activity. Central to the Court’s position in both cases was the fact that the policies at hand dealt with minors temporarily entrusted to the care of the state. It is, therefore, highly questionable whether a similar policy would be upheld outside of the public school context. For example, government would probably not be allowed to drug test all persons entering or leaving a known drug-ridden neighborhood, even though the need to fight the scourge of drugs may provide a compelling governmental interest. Vernonia School District 47J v. Acton (1995) Supreme Court, U.S.;drug testing in schools Schools;drug testing

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Alexander, Kern, and M. David Alexander. American Public School Law. 6th ed. Belmont, Calif.: Thomson/West, 2005. Textbook aimed at graduate students provides a comprehensive analysis of legal cases involving a multitude of issues that affect public schools, including student privacy rights against unreasonable searches and seizures.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gold, Susan Dudley. Vernonia School District v. Acton: Drug Testing in the Schools. Tarrytown, N.Y.: Marshall Cavendish Benchmark Books, 2006. Volume intended for young readers presents discussion of the Vernonia case and of subsequent Supreme Court decisions involving the Fourth Amendment and mandatory drug testing of public school students.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hudson, David L. Rights of Students. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2004. Uses a point-counterpoint format to examine various topics related to civil liberties in U.S. public schools.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Persico, Deborah A. Vernonia School District v. Acton: Drug Testing in Schools. Springfield, N.J.: Enslow, 1999. Volume intended for young adult readers discusses the facts, issue, holding, rationale, and significance of the 1995 Supreme Court decision.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Raskin, Jamin B. We the Students: Supreme Court Cases for and About Students. 2d ed. Washington, D.C.: Congressional Quarterly Press, 2003. Designed to help students achieve literacy on their constitutional rights as students. Includes learning exercises, case excerpts, and discussion prompts.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Stephens, Otis H., and Richard A. Glenn. Unreasonable Searches and Seizures: Rights and Liberties Under the Law. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-CLIO, 2006. Examines the Fourth Amendment from its historical origins through controversies of the early twentieth century. Analyzes the Supreme Court’s efforts to reconcile the constitutional rights of public school students with the government’s interest in promoting a safe learning environment. Includes chronology of relevant Fourth Amendment decisions and annotated bibliography.

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Categories: History