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Originally published Friday, March 14, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Random student drug tests banned

Other states allow it. The U.S. Constitution allows it. But the Washington Supreme Court said Thursday that random drug testing of student...

Seattle Times staff reporter

Other states allow it. The U.S. Constitution allows it. But the Washington Supreme Court said Thursday that random drug testing of student athletes is not allowed under the state Constitution.

The decision involved athletes who sued the Wahkiakum School District in 1999 after the district began requiring students to undergo urine tests if they wanted to participate in sports. If the tests indicated drug or alcohol use, the student was suspended from sports but wasn't reported to police.

At the time, officials in the Southwest Washington school district felt there was a real problem with student drug use, especially among athletes. Public surveys named youth substance abuse as the No. 1 problem there.

That's not enough to allow drug testing of a student when there's no reason to suspect he or she is using drugs, the court ruled unanimously.

"We cannot countenance random searches of public school student athletes," under the Washington Constitution, Justice Richard Sanders wrote. "We require a warrant except for rare occasions which we jealously and narrowly guard."

Thursday's opinion says Wahkiakum, and by implication other school districts, must stop random drug testing.

The ACLU of Washington, which represented the students and their parents, said the ruling will put an end to suspicionless random drug testing in Washington schools. "The justices concluded, as we had contended, that it violates the state Constitution to require a student to give their urine without any reason to believe they've done anything wrong," spokesman Doug Honig said.

The ruling does not bar searches of a particular student if there is a suspicion that he or she is using drugs.

A message left with the Wahkiakum district's lawyer Thursday morning was not returned.

The district had argued that Washington law is no different from federal law, which would have allowed the drug testing.

While the U.S. Supreme Court has noted that the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution generally prohibits random or suspicionless searches, including drug tests, it also permits such searches if circumstances present "special needs."

In a case out of Vernonia, Ore., the court ruled that testing student athletes for drugs, even without a particular suspicion, was permitted under the U.S. Constitution because of a school's interest in students' well-being. In addition, the justices ruled that random testing caused fewer problems than testing based on suspicion, which would single students out. In another case, the court ruled that students who participated in other extracurricular activities could also be randomly tested.

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But the Washington Constitution is different from the federal one, the state Supreme Court ruled Thursday.

Article I Section 7 reads: "No person shall be disturbed in his private affairs, or his home invaded, without authority of law." That "authority of law" was lacking in the Wahkiakum searches, the state Supreme Court ruled. (It's also why sobriety checkpoints have not been permitted in this state.)

In addition, Sanders and three other justices concluded that Washington law does not recognize the "special needs" exception that is allowed under federal law.

"A student athlete has a genuine and fundamental privacy interest in controlling his or her own bodily functions," Justice Sanders wrote. "Even if done in an enclosed stall, this is a significant intrusion on a student's fundamental right of privacy."

To rule otherwise, the court concluded, would open the door to random drug tests for other extracurricular activities, and for the entire student body.

While a number of other school districts have considered random drug testing over the years, only a handful have such programs in place. The ACLU's Honig said that's because such policies often draw opposition from parents and because drug testing can be expensive. He also said studies show it doesn't deter kids from using drugs.

The Burlington-Edison School District in Skagit County has conducted drug and alcohol testing for more than 10 years. Students who participate in sports or extracurricular activities are tested once a year, and random checks are done on a monthly basis.

Beth VanderVeen, principal at Burlington-Edison High, said the policy has been effective. She sees it as a way to help more students say no to drugs and alcohol.

"Our intent is to try to get kids help, to try to help them make good choices," VanderVeen said.

Arlene Hulten, spokeswoman for the Lake Stevens district, said suspensions and expulsions related to drugs and alcohol have gone down since the high school began random tests of students involved in extracurricular activities. From 2005-06 to 2006-07, for example, she said the decrease was 20 percent.

Lake Stevens basketball player Karri Gallagher said the random testing "makes people have better judgment." She said she was never tested.

The district received a four-year, $587,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Education that covers the costs of testing.

The district has tested about 500 students over the past two years, Hulten said, and about 10 have tested positive for drugs or alcohol.

If the testing can't continue, then "we'll have to put our heads together and take a look at what we can do to help kids make good decisions," Hulten said.

The opinion written by Justice Sanders was signed by Justices Gerry L. Alexander, Susan Owens and Tom Chambers. Justices Barbara Madsen, James M. Johnson and Chambers wrote concurring opinions. Justices Mary Fairhurst, Charles W. Johnson and retired Justice Bobbe J. Bridge, who was sitting pro tem, signed Madsen's concurrence.

Times staff reporters Linda Shaw and Tom Wyrwich and freelance writer Zach Landres-Schnur contributed to this report.

Maureen O'Hagan: 206-464-2562 or mohagan@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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