Drug Use and Drug Testing in Schools Under Fourth Amendment Law
Teenagers may experiment with illegal drugs in high school as a means to relieve stress or fit in with their friends. Some students believe that certain drugs will improve their academic performance by enhancing their energy and concentration, but evidence suggests that drug use often undermines performance instead. Unfortunately, abusing drugs as a teenager increases the risk of addiction as an adult. Substance abuse also may lead to dangerous behaviors that put other students at risk.
Schools thus have strong reasons to hunt down drug use on their premises and discipline students who engage in this behavior. At the same time, the U.S. Constitution provides certain privacy protections to students regarding drug testing by school authorities.
Drug Testing in Schools
The Fourth Amendment to the Constitution protects citizens from unreasonable searches and seizures. This provision usually arises in the context of criminal prosecution, but searches in public schools also trigger its protections. A drug test is considered a search under the Fourth Amendment, since it involves collecting urine from the body. However, school authorities do not need to meet the requirements for police officers in the criminal context.
Instead of a probable cause standard, a reasonable suspicion standard applies to searches in public schools. This means that a school official must have a reasonable suspicion that a student is under the influence of drugs while they are at school, or while they are attending a school activity. In other words, the official must have a reasonable basis to think that a test or other search will produce evidence showing that the student has violated a school drug policy. A school official does not need a warrant from a judge to conduct a drug test.
State laws may have stronger protections than federal law, although laws are unclear in some states.
Determining whether a reasonable suspicion exists depends heavily on the circumstances surrounding the search at issue. For example, a court probably would find that a school official had a reasonable suspicion if a student smelled strongly of marijuana and was slurring their words. If the school received a credible report that a student had used drugs that day, this could combine with visible signs that the student was impaired to create a reasonable suspicion. If a student seems more energetic or aggressive than usual, this by itself probably does not create a reasonable suspicion.
The Fourth Amendment does not allow public schools to conduct random drug testing across the entire student body. However, a school may randomly test students who participate in competitive extracurricular activities, such as athletics and the school band. Since many students participate in these types of activities, the prohibition on blanket random testing does not carry as much weight as it seems.
Recognizing Drug Use in Teenagers
Parents should watch for signs that their child may be experimenting with illegal drugs. These may include mood changes, appearance changes, bursts of anger or aggression, and uncharacteristic problems in communicating with their parents. A teenager may start chewing gum more often to hide the smell of marijuana on their breath. If they ask for money more often or more urgently, this may suggest that they need the money to buy drugs.
Rather than confronting their teen in an adversarial way, parents should try to be supportive. Finding out why their child is drawn to drugs can help them work toward a solution. If they use drugs to get an adrenaline rush, they might find healthier activities that produce the same feeling. If they are trying to cope with the stress of high school, parents can help them find other ways to navigate the pressure.
Drug Use by Friends
If you spot red flags indicating that a friend of your child is abusing drugs, you may want to urge your child to distance themselves from that friend. A teenager is more likely to experiment with drugs if they spend time with peers who regularly use drugs.
A parent should act promptly once they realize that their teen may have a developing drug problem. This can help prevent it from becoming a more dangerous dependency and avoid the need for a drug rehab program. Parents might consult their family doctor or their child’s doctor for advice, as well as addiction specialists. These professionals can evaluate the situation and decide whether formal treatment may be needed.
Lawsuits Related to Drug Use in Schools
Teenagers who use drugs are more likely to behave erratically and suddenly lash out at other people. They may resort to violence against other students, causing serious injuries. If their child was harmed because of another student’s drug use, parents may want to investigate whether the school knew or should have known about this risk. Schools have an obligation to take reasonable measures to keep children safe during the school day or while they are participating in school activities. If a school fails to investigate a credible report that a student is impaired by drugs, and that student assaults another student due to their impairment, the school might be liable for damages. Parents might have an especially strong case if the school violated its own drug policy.
Suing a school district can be challenging because specific rules apply to claims against government entities. For example, parents may need to file a notice of claim with the government before pursuing a lawsuit. Further limitations on liability also may apply, which vary from state to state and may depend on the circumstances surrounding the injuries. If parents navigate around these obstacles, however, they may be able to recover compensation for the harm to their child and related costs.