ACLU Challenge Ends Student Drug Testing in Maryland Schools

Affiliate: ACLU of Maryland
August 17, 2000 12:00 am

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EASTON, MD — In a national first, Maryland school officials who removed 18 high school students from final exam review classes and forced them to have their urine tested on the stage of their school auditorium agreed last night to cease all student drug testing in county schools and pay damages to the students, effectively conceding that the harms of school drug testing outweigh the benefits.

“By replacing a punitive drug testing policy with a responsible system of parental notification, the Board promises to make the schools a more nurturing place, and to return a measure of authority over students to parents, with whom it rightly belongs,” said ACLU of Maryland attorney Deborah A. Jeon.

a group of Easton High School students and their parents.

The ACLU challenged the Talbot County school system’s requirement that students undergo targeted drug testing — on threat of suspension or even expulsion — based solely upon allegations that the students attended a private, off-campus social event where drugs were rumored to have been used.

The ACLU also attacked the lack of confidentiality and reliability in drug testing methods employed at the high school, describing a January incident in which school officials tested urine samples from the students on the stage of the school auditorium, with an audience of students and parents watching, and no precautions were taken to double-check findings or to keep test results confidential.

“We commend school officials for their willingness to take this significant step to ensure that Talbot County students never again will face the threat of school suspension based upon a faulty drug test, or be made to feel they are presumed guilty of drug abuse, unless they can prove themselves innocent through urinalysis testing,” said Andrew M. Dansicker, an attorney on the case, from the law firm of Venable, Baetjer & Howard.

The dispute was triggered by a January 18, 2000 incident in which a group of students were removed from class during their review for final examinations and sent to the high school auditorium for urinanalysis drug testing. The students were selected for testing because another student claimed they had attended a party two days earlier where drugs were used.

Upon arriving in the auditorium, the students were given little explanation about what was happening. They were directed to sit apart from one another and to keep quiet. Over the course of the next few hours, the students’ parents were summoned to the school to give their “consent” to drug testing.

Parents rushed to the school in a state of alarm, only to be met by school administrators who threatened their children with suspension or expulsion if consent to the testing was denied. Most of the parents ultimately permitted the testing for fear that their children otherwise would be expelled.

To the ACLU’s knowledge, none of the tests conducted was actually positive — although at least one test initially was misconstrued as a positive result by school officials, and another was erroneously classified as “inconclusive.”

The student whose test was misconstrued as positive was immediately suspended from school and sports activities, publicly chastised by school officials, paraded through the halls and escorted from the campus by security guards. An independent test conducted the next day by a certified laboratory showed the student to be negative for illegal drugs.

Lynne Ewing, Talbot County Advocates for Student and Parental Rights President, said the group worked through a difficult and emotional process to reach agreement with school administrators.

“We think the message of this settlement is clear: What happened at Easton High School last winter violated students’ fundamental constitutional rights, as well as school policy,” Ewing said. “It never should have happened, and must never happen again.”

Ewing said that all of the members of her advocacy group are strong opponents of illegal drugs, but that the school system’s use of drug testing to address the problem has proven to be ineffective and punitive. “Our hope is that this settlement will open doors between parents, students and our schools leading to a positive solution.”

Roxanne Rodgers, mother of one of the four student-plaintiffs in the case and Secretary of the student-parent advocacy group, added: “Our family is proud to have been a part of a collective effort by parents to protect future Talbot County students from going through the trauma suffered by the students involved in these incidents.”

“We look forward to discussing our concerns with Dr. Harris and Superintendent Meek at the upcoming meeting, and we hope these officials will use information gathered there as the starting point for a thorough evaluation of the school system and EHS leadership.”

The agreement was reached after nearly 13 straight hours of negotiation, mediated by U.S. Magistrate Judge Susan K. Gauvey, at federal district court in Baltimore. Under the court-approved settlement, the school will also:

Convene a meeting with Board of Education President Stephen Harris, School Superintendent J. Samuel Meek and all students and parents involved in the drug testing incidents for the purpose of hearing the families’ concerns and expressing regret for any harms the students suffered;

Remove from student files of any mention of the drug testing incidents complained of in the lawsuit;

Conduct an internal review by the school system of the officials’ conduct complained of in the lawsuit;

Pay monetary damages to the plaintiffs, in an amount to be kept confidential; and

Pay attorneys’ fees and costs to the plaintiffs, in an amount to be kept confidential.

Lawsuit defendants signing onto the settlement include the Talbot County Board of Education; Superintendent Meek; EHS Principal Timothy Thurber; and BOE Pupil Services Coordinator Beth Nobbs. Plaintiffs joining the settlement are four individual students and a parents’ group, the Talbot County Advocates for Student and Parental Rights, which represents a number of additional families involved in the dispute.

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