Board of Education of Independent School District No. 92 of Pottawatomie County v. Earls



The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Board of Education of Independent School District No. 92 of Pottawatomie County v. Earls (2002) addressed the legal issue of whether suspicionless drug-testing of students, pursuant to a board’s student activities drugtesting policy, was reasonable under the U.S. Constitution’s Fourth Amendment, which guarantees protection from unreasonable searches and seizures. In largely applying the test that it enunciated in Vernonia School District 47J v. Acton (1995), the Court ruled the policy was constitutional based on five reasons, as discussed in this entry.

Facts of the Case


The policy at issue required all students who wished to participate in competitive extracurricular activities to submit urine for drug testing and to provide school officials with a list of all prescription drugs that they took. The samples were collected by teachers, who stood outside of bathroom stalls. If test results were positive, they were kept confidential, except that parents were notified, and students were referred to counseling. Students were not reported to the police, and only repeated positive tests or refusals to participate in counseling could have led to students’ being excluded from extracurricular activities.
After Lindsay Earls, a participant in several activities, filed suit against the school board in a federal trial court in Oklahoma, challenging the policy as a violation of the Fourth Amendment, the court granted the board’s motion for summary judgment. Subsequently, the Tenth Circuit reversed in favor of Earls, deciding that the policy violated the Fourth Amendment. On further review, the Supreme Court reversed in ruling that the policy passed constitutional muster.

The Court’s Ruling


The Court, in an opinion authored by Justice Thomas, reasoned that students who participate in extracurricular activities have limited expectations of privacy. The Court observed that because these activities required students to use communal team dressing rooms and lockers, they voluntarily subject themselves to intrusions of their privacy. The Court also found the testing procedure was constitutionally permissible, because it was virtually identical to the one employed in Vernonia School District 47J v. Acton, wherein it determined that any intrusion on student privacy was negligible. Additionally, the Court was satisfied that the policy clearly required confidentiality, and test records were kept separate from students’ other files. Further, insofar as the Court explained that the results were not given to the police and the only real consequence was exclusion from extracurricular activities, it concluded that the invasion of students’ privacy was not significant.
The Court next asserted that the evidence of drug use offered by school officials was sufficient to justify the policy, because the Court had not required a particularized or pervasive problem to allow drug testing. To this end, the Court agreed that the policy served the board’s interest in protecting the safety and health of its students. Finally, while expressing no opinion as to the wisdom of the policy, the Court ruled that the policy was a reasonable means of advancing the district’s interest of preventing drug use by its students.
Justice Breyer’s concurring opinion emphasized the size of the serious drug problem in American schools and the failure of government efforts to restrict supply to reduce teenage drug use. He also noted that public schools need to find effective means to address the problem and that educators need to work to change the school environment to discourage peer pressure to use drugs. In dissent, Justice O’Connor argued that based on her contention that Vernonia had been resolved incorrectly, it followed that the policy at issue failed the balancing approach that it had enunciated.
Justice Ginsberg dissented on the ground that the circumstances in the Earls case were significantly different from those in Vernonia. Citing the commonalities with Vernonia that the Court emphasized, she was of the view that attending public school and electing to participate in extracurricular activities alone did not justify such intrusive, suspicionless searches. Along with concerns for student privacy, Ginsberg was troubled by the lack of evidence to justify the need for the policy.
In sum, Earls, like its predecessor case, Vernonia, stands for the proposition that while school boards are free to enact carefully crafted suspicionless drugtesting policies for students who wish to participate in extracurricular activities, and these policies can be upheld as constitutional, boards are under no legal obligation to do so.
Patricia Ehrensal

See also Drug Testing of Students; Extracurricular Activities, Law and Policy; Vernonia School District 47J v. Acton
Legal Citations
  • Board of Education of Independent School District No. 92 of Pottawatomie County v. Earls, 536 U.S. 822 (2002), on remand, 300 F.3d 1222 (10th Cir. 2002).
  • Vernonia School District 47J v. Acton, 515 U.S. 646 (1995), on remand, 66 F.3d 217 (9th Cir. 1995).