Supreme Court Verdict in Vernonia School District v. Acton

July 7, 2008 - 7:04 PM

(Editor's Note: The following is a summary from the U.S. Supreme Court's June 26, 1995 ruling in Vernonia School District 47J, Petitioner v. Wayne Acton.)

Vernonia School District 47J, Petitioner v. Wayne Acton
515 U.S. 646 (1995)
Chris Praylo

Vernonia School District operated a high school and three grade schools in the city of Vernonia, Oregon. Drug use had become an increasing problem in the late 1980's. Student achievement was declining and discipline problems were increasing. Many people believed that athletes were deeply involved in the drug culture and that this involvement increased risk for sports injuries. The school district responded, at first, with classes about drugs, guest speakers, and special presentations. After these efforts failed the school district established a policy that called for a student-athlete to sign a form consenting to drug testing before the start of the season. If a student failed the test the first time, he/she would take it again to confirm the result. If the second test was positive, the athlete's parents were notified, and they had to meet with the principal. The student had the option of entering a drug program for six weeks and giving a weekly urine sample, or being suspended for the remainder of the current season and next season.

In 1995, Wayne Acton, a student entering the seventh grade, refused to sign a consent form to allow him to be subjected to a drug test. The parents filed a suit seeking declaratory and injunctive relief on the grounds that the policy violated the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution as well as in the Oregon Constitution. The district court entered an order denying the claims on the merits and dismissing the action. The United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth the policy violated the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments. The Supreme Court granted certiorari and reversed the decision of the appeals court.

Justice Scalia wrote the majority opinion, which found that the policy did not violate the Fourth Amendment. The Court found that the policy was reasonable after balancing the intrusion of the search the on the individual's Fourth Amendment interest against the promotion of legitimate governmental interest. The Court stated that since the school has responsibility to watch and take care of the children while at school, children have a lesser privacy expectation with regard to medical exams and other medical processes than the general public. Also, the Court that the drug test was conducted so that it was not intrusive and restricted the privacy of the students. Finally, the court found that the school had an interest in protected athletes and students from the effects of drug use.

Read the entire ruling.