Q: Are students protected by the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution?
A: Yes. Under the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, all people, including public school students, are protected against “unreasonable searches and seizures.” Any type of search that school officials conduct implicates the Fourth Amendment and its protections.
Q: Is a drug or alcohol test considered a search under the Fourth Amendment?
A: Yes. A drug test (usually administered by obtaining a urine sample) or alcohol test (usually administered through a breathalyzer) both qualify as a “search” under the Fourth Amendment. Since the Fourth Amendment applies to drug/alcohol tests administered to students, the question often becomes whether it was reasonable to conduct the search or test.
Q: When can public school officials test students for drugs or alcohol?
A: Public schools are responsible for ensuring the safety of all students. For this reason, public school officials are not held to the higher “probable cause” standard law enforcement officers must meet to conduct searches. School officials also do not need a search warrant to conduct a search (or test). Rather, school officials may test a student for drugs or alcohol if they have a “reasonable suspicion” that a student is under the influence of drugs or alcohol at school or during a school-sponsored event.
Q: What does it mean to have a reasonable suspicion?
A: Having a “reasonable suspicion” means that there are reasonable grounds to suspect that a search (or test) will provide evidence that the student violated a school policy or rule. The reasonableness of any search (or test) depends on the facts and circumstances of each situation.
Q: What are some examples of reasonable suspicion?
A: If a student is noticeably impaired and has alcohol on his/her breath, school officials would have a reasonable suspicion to conduct a breathalyzer test. Also, noticeable impairment combined with information received from a credible source about the same student’s recent consumption of drugs or alcohol would likely constitute a reasonable suspicion. However, a student’s misbehavior alone would not justify drug/alcohol testing if there were no other indicators that the student was using drugs or alcohol.
Q: Can a school implement a random drug-testing policy for all students?
A: No; public schools may not implement a purely random (or “suspicionless”) drug-testing policy for all students in attendance. Such a policy has been held to violate the Fourth Amendment. However, public schools may implement a random drug testing policy for all students who participate in competitive activities (specifically including, but not necessarily limited to athletics, band, choir and cheerleading). Also, one court upheld a random drug-testing policy to include any student who received a school parking permit. So, practically speaking, a public school can randomly drug test a large portion of its students.
This “Law You Can Use” column was provided by the Ohio State Bar Association (OSBA). It was prepared by attorney Mark A. Weiker, a member of the Columbus firm, Albeit Weiker, LLP, and the OSBA Education Law Committee.