Students and Parents Challenge "Rumor Mill" Drug Testing at Maryland High School

Affiliate: ACLU of Maryland
May 2, 2000 12:00 am

ACLU Affiliate
ACLU of Maryland
Media Contact
125 Broad Street
18th Floor
New York, NY 10004
United States


BALTIMORE, MD — In what is believed to be the first legal challenge to student drug testing in the state, the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland and a private law firm filed suit here today in federal district court on behalf of a group of Easton High School students and their parents.

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

“These are good kids who have been unfairly branded by school administrators as possible drug abusers, just because it was rumored that they attended a private party where some unnamed persons allegedly were using drugs,” said ACLU attorney Deborah A. Jeon. “The type of individualized suspicion required by the Constitution to justify drug testing plainly was lacking here.”

In legal papers filed with the court, the ACLU lawsuit also attacked the lack of confidentiality and reliability in drug testing methods employed at the school. Because of the fundamental rights at issue and the likelihood that Easton High officials will engage in illegal testing in the future, the students and their parents are asking the court to expedite its review of the case and to issue a temporary order putting a stop to further drug testing until the litigation is resolved.

Maryland state law and Talbot County school policy authorize drug testing only when officials have reason to believe a student possesses or has used drugs on school grounds. But school administrators distorted this policy by claiming that a student is “in possession” of drugs, — and in violation of the rules — if she comes to school with drug metabolites in her bloodstream from prior, off-campus drug usage.

“The school’s legal rationale is absurd and has no basis in Maryland law,” said attorney Andrew M. Dansicker of Venable, Baetjer & Howard, a Baltimore law firm working with the ACLU on the case.”It is nothing more than a transparent attempt to justify the school’s unconstitutional violation of students’ privacy rights.”

Further, while the policy requires all testing to be done in confidence at a certified laboratory, school officials conducted drug testing themselves on school grounds, with none of the requisite safeguards employed by a laboratory.

The plaintiffs are four individual students and a newly-formed parents’ group, the Talbot County Advocates for Student and Parental Rights (TCASPR). The group’s President, Lynne Ewing, said many students and parents were extremely upset about the incident, and are fearful that similar problems will recur if school officials are not reined in by the Court.

“When we send our children to the public schools, we trust and expect officials there to look out for their welfare and safety. But there is a line between assisting parents by looking out for students, and usurping parental authority or invading students’ legitimate rights to privacy. That line obviously has been crossed here,” said Ewing, who has two children at Easton High School.

TCASPR leaders said the group does not categorically oppose school drug testing, but believes it should be limited to situations where there is sufficient cause for school administrators to believe a student possesses or has used drugs at school.

“Beyond school boundaries, children are within the jurisdiction of their parents,” said TCASPR member Denise Nolan. “It invades our rights as a family for school administrators to interject themselves and the school’s disciplinary machinery into the private domain.”

“In their zealotry to root out drug users,” she added, “school officials seem to have lost sight of their role as educators. Last January, academics clearly took a back seat to accusation, when 18 students needlessly were pulled from class for hours during a critical time of study.”

Ms. Nolan’s daughter Jamie echoed this view. Jamie Nolan, a 15-year-old sophomore who maintains a straight-A average, said she felt angry and violated by the school’s insistence that she submit to a drug test despite administrators’ admission that she is a model student who gives them no cause for concern.

“I did not appreciate that the school took away time during one of the most important school days of the year, when we were having review for final exams, in order to wrongfully accuse us and make us feel guilty,” she said.

The dispute was triggered by an incident on January 18 of this year in which a group of students were removed from class during their review for final examinations and sent to the school auditorium for urinanalysis drug testing. Reportedly, this action was taken because another student claimed the group had been among those attending a private party two days earlier where, the student alleged, someone was using drugs.

Upon arrival in the auditorium, the 18 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 four to five 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 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 families’ 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 several were 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. This student now joins as a plaintiff in the ACLU lawsuit.

Defendants named in the lawsuit are the Talbot County Board of Education (BOE); County School Superintendent J. Samuel Meek; EHS Principal Timothy Thurber; BOE Pupil Services Coordinator Beth Nobbs; and County Health Department employee Sarah Smith.

Every month, you'll receive regular roundups of the most important civil rights and civil liberties developments. Remember: a well-informed citizenry is the best defense against tyranny.

Learn More About the Issues in This Press Release