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Thursday, August 21, 2014
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Published: Saturday, 5/10/2014

COMMENTARY

A mother’s dilemma: Drug testing vs. individual liberty

BY MARILOU JOHANEK
BLADE COLUMNIST
Johanek Johanek
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The mom in me is all about preventive, proactive, protective measures to safeguard my kids’ health and well-being. But the civil libertarian in me has a problem with mandatory drug testing in schools.

Let the inner tussle commence. Feel free to weigh in on my conundrum.

Three private high schools in the Cleveland area recently announced plans to enforce mandatory drug testing of every student this fall.

The move followed an identical step two years ago by St. John’s Jesuit High School & Academy in Toledo. As at St. John’s, all students at Gilmour Academy, St. Edward High School, and St. Ignatius High School will be asked to submit a hair sample for drug testing, which will continue on a random basis throughout the school year.

Parochial schools can initiate that kind of blanket drug testing because they’re private. Public schools, which offer education to all students by law, can’t treat an entire student body like suspects without probable cause.

But plenty of public school districts are nibbling around the edges of privacy rights by mandating drug testing for particular groups of students, such as athletes. Public and private schools adopt similar rationales to justify drug testing of students.

The purpose of randomly screening students for drugs, the schools assert, is to protect the health and safety of students, to deter drug use, and to intervene with counseling or treatment programs. Sounds sensible on the surface.

The U.S. Supreme Court has concurred. It ruled that the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition against unreasonable search and seizure was, in effect, relative in the context of a public school enforcing zero drug tolerance.

In 1995, the court said that searches unsupported by probable cause, or mandatory drug tests of student-athletes in public schools, were not always unreasonable. A few years later, a divided court ruled that public schools could require drug tests for students who participate in any extracurricular program, from sports to band, without violating any constitutional rights.

Schools that recognize the potential of substance abuse to destroy young lives claim they’re taking a proactive stand for the welfare of their students. School officials say they’re adopting a wellness initiative.

What’s not to like, as a parent of teenagers prone to peer pressure? I’ll tell you what, screamed the hopping mad civil libertarian in me.

What are we teaching our children about the Fourth Amendment, about diluting provisions specifically written to protect individual dignity? The three private high schools in northeast Ohio that will be testing their students for illegal drug use acknowledge no egregious drug problem in their academic communities.

Are they enacting a solution in search of a problem? Certainly, drug and alcohol abuse are serious issues to be addressed and dealt with in every community.

But why subject every student to blanket drug testing for any or no reason? “Gone are any requirements for individualized suspicion,” wrote Richard Boire, counsel for the Center for Cognitive Liberty & Ethics, which calls itself a network of scholars who elaborate the law, policy, and ethics of freedom of thought.

“Trust and respect have been replaced with a generalized distrust, an accusatory authoritarian demand that students prove their innocence at the whim of the schoolmaster,” Mr. Boire said. “Raised with the ever-present specter of coercion and control where [drug] testing is as common as standardized testing, today’s students will have little if any privacy expectations when they reach adulthood.”

That’s what gives me pause as a parent. Clearly, it is critical for schools to educate students about choice and consequence about drug and alcohol abuse.

Schools have an obligation to enforce drug-free policies. But the message we’re giving students is that constitutional protections can be outweighed by policy concerns.

The same thinking allowed government to override all sorts of constitutional touchstones in the interest of national security. Only now, with disclosure of how far the government strayed with the indefensible Patriot Act, is there outrage over constitutional rights trampled.

Rights freely given away are not easy to get back. Once we dispense with constitutional requirements as impractical or unnecessary, we’re in a scary place where protections are replaced by protocol — such as lining up to submit hair samples in schools.

I want my children to be safeguarded from the dangers of drugs and alcohol. But I also want the Constitution to be more than lip service in their lives.

Marilou Johanek is a columnist for The Blade.

Contact Blade columnist Marilou Johanek at: mjohanek@theblade.com



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