Board of Education v. Earls 536 U.S. 822 (2002)
The Tecumseh, Oklahoma School District has a drug testing policy that requires all middle and high school students who wish to participate in extracurricular activities to undergo a urinalysis that tests for the presence of illegal drugs. At the time of this case, this policy had only been applied to activities sanctioned by the Oklahoma Secondary Schools Activities Association. The school district was sued by some students and parents in an attempt to have this policy vacated on Fourth Amendment grounds.
The District Court hearing the suit granted the school District a Summary Judgement (a ruling without a full trial). On appeal, the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the decision, holding that the testing of the students was a violation of the Fourth Amendment. They ruled that because the School District had failed to show that there was a drug abuse problem among a sufficient number of students who were to be tested and that the test was suspicionless, the testing program would not have an effect in reducing a problem with illegal drug use.
Justice Clarence Thomas wrote the opinion for the Supreme Court. In reversing the decision of the Appeals Court, he held that "a probable cause finding is unnecessary in the public school context because it would unduly interfere with maintenance of the swift and informal disciplinary procedures that are needed." He ruled that there need not be suspicion of an individual or individuals for a search of students to be deemed reasonable.
He noted the the "special needs" of public schools are beyond the needs of law enforcement. Relying on Vernonia School District v. Acton (1995), Thomas, he concluded that the students affected by the drug testing had a limited expectation of privacy because they voluntarily participated in extracurricular activities. Additionally, the results of the urinalysis were not used to penalize students academically or shared with law enforcement. For these reasons, the drug testing policy was not a significant intrusion on the student's privacy expectations and therefore, was not a violation of the Fourth Amendment.
In summarizing the decision, Thomas wrote "Within the limits of the Fourth Amendment, local school boards must assess the desirability of drug testing schoolchildren. In upholding the constitutionality of the Policy, we express no opinion as to its wisdom. Rather, we hold only that Tecumseh's Policy is a reasonable means of furthering the School District's important interest in preventing and deterring drug use among its schoolchildren."
In dissent, Justice Ginsburg noted that the Superintendent of the School District had termed the District's drug problem as "not ... major." She held that the testing was not reasonable and, therefore, a violation of the Fourth Amendment because the tests targeted a particular group of students that was not likely to be at risk from the use of illegal drugs.