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Pottawatomie v. Earls (2001)

Case

The war on drugs started in the ‘70s, but drug use in teens was still a major problem in the late 1990s. Pottawatomie County schools decided to implement a mandatory drug testing policy for middle and high school students involved in extracurricular activities.  Students had to submit to random drug tests throughout their time in the activity or whenever there was suspicion. If found positive, a student’s parents were informed and students were given drug counseling options and faced potential suspension from their activity. The students would only be reported to the police if they were continually found positive or refused to seek help. 

Two high school students, Lindsay Earls and Daniel James, objected to the school policy claiming that it violated their Fourth Amendment rights to protect people from unreasonable searches and seizures. The Fourth Amendment usually requires the use of a warrant in order to conduct searches and seizures and involves the expectation of privacy. The students particularly found issues with the provision which required drug testing for those in nonathletic extracurriculars. The Court had to determine if the school policy requiring students in extracurriculars to be drug tested violated the Fourth Amendment. 

Decision

The Court decided in a 5-4 opinion that the school’s mandatory drug testing policy was constitutional. In Justice Thomas’ opinion, he emphasized that the policy served an important interest in trying to limit drug use in its students. The method of drug testing was noninvasive and protected student’s privacy since the students were not referred to the police. In addition, Thomas wrote for the majority that students involved in extracurriculars should not expect the same privacy as those who were not involved in extracurriculars. Due to these factors, the Court found that school drug testing was not in violation of the Fourth Amendment. 

In Justice Breyer’s concurring opinion, he stressed the issue of drug abuse in the United States. Since schools are a central part of the youth’s development, they should play a large role in trying to stop the problem. Breyer also questioned the invasiveness of urinalysis, stating that while some may find it embarrassing, many others would not. 

Dissent

Justice Ginsburg wrote the dissent for the Court. Ginsburg saw the privacy violations as much more offensive than the majority saw the violations. Ginsburg also claimed that the school district was careless with the urinalysis samples and did not go out of their way to protect student’s privacy. Fourth Amendment concerns, in Ginsburg’s view, overrode the goals of the school district. Ginsburg also emphasized that the school district was giving students a nonchoice. Even though extracurriculars are technically optional, they are a fundamental part of the high school experience. Without extracurriculars, students would not be able to engage in the whole adolescent experience. 

Impact

Many have argued that by letting this decision stand, the Court has allowed student’s expectations of privacy to be destroyed. Others have argued that the school’s drug-testing policy was formed on incorrect premises. Students involved in extracurriculars are less likely to be engaged in drug use than students who are not, so targeting students involved in extracurriculars does not make sense. If students stop extracurriculars out of fear of drug testing, that could only lead them down a darker path. However, random drug testing proponents argue that the fear of drug testing will stop students from engaging in drugs. The Court also exhibited inconsistencies in this decision since, just years prior in Chandler v. Miller (1997), the Court decided that adult candidates for political office in Georgia could not be subject to drug testing.

Think Further

  1. Do you think the Court would have ruled differently if all students were targeted, not just those engaged in extracurriculars? 
  2. Does your school’s drug testing policy align with this decision? 
  3. Why would the Court rule differently for student drug testing than for adult politician’s drug testing?

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  1. “Board of Ed. of Independent School Dist. No. 92 of Pottawatomie Cty. v. Earls.” Oyez,www.oyez.org/cases/2001/01-332.
  2. Ehrensal, Patricia A.L. “Board of Education of Independent School District No. 92 of Pottawatomie County v. Earls.” Encyclopedia Britannica (20 June 2019), https://www.britannica.com/event/Board-of-Education-of-Independent-School-District-No-92-of-Pottawatomie-County-v-Earls
  3. Kucharson, M. Casey (2004) “Please Report to the Principal’s Office, Urine Trouble: The Effect of Board of Education v. Earls on America’s Schoolchildren,” Akron Law Review: Vol. 37 : Iss. 1 , Article 4. http://ideaexchange.uakron.edu/akronlawreview/vol37/iss1/4