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Federal Court Prohibits Blanket Student Drug Testing By Technical College

Earlier posts (available here and here) discussed a legal challenge to Linn State Technical College requiring all students to undergo a drug test through urinalysis. In March of this year, a federal district court had issued a preliminary injunction against the program. This was vacated by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit, which stated that testing might be appropriate for some students based on safety needs.

Earlier this month, the district court issued an opinion holding that the Missouri college's mandatory, suspicionless drug testing of all students violated the Fourth Amendment rights of students enrolled in a number of programs (opinion available here through NACUA). That is, the court rejected the position that the college could have a blanket drug testing policy for all students. Instead, it required the college to establish a special need in particular programs for drug testing that outweighed students' expectations of privacy under the Fourth Amendment.

According to the court, the college's primary justification for a universal drug testing scheme rested on work force preparation, as students were receiving training at the college in fields that commonly require drug screening by employers. Looking to the Eighth Circuit's order vacating the preliminary injunction, the court considered language from the appeals court that testing was permissible for students who posed particular safety risks to others. Under these standards, the court approved of testing for students in aviation maintenance and several programs dealing with training in electrical work.

The court determined a lack of evidence to implement drug testing in several programs (e.g., auto body and mechanics programs, turf management, and programs dealing with equipment and truck technology). Importantly, the court required more than speculation on the part of an instructor that a danger might be present absent a testing regime. The college bore the burden to provide persuasive evidence that an exception to the usual standards of the Fourth Amendment and a prohibition on suspicionless searches was warranted.

I have been (and remain) a critic of the seemingly wholesale expansion of drug testing to high school students. Not suprisingly, I was not a fan of the drug testing program that Linn State Technical College sought to implement. While a policy well motivated in certain respects, I wholeheartedly disagreed with the premise that a public college (i.e., the government) should be able to engage in mandatory suspicionless drug testing of students primarily on the justification that many employers drug test. I hope that this sensible order by the district court is upheld on any appeal.

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