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The Rights of Children


Washington. -- When I heard he was fighting all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court for the right to refuse random drug tests required for sports activities at his school in Vernonia, Oregon, I figured James Acton was probably some kind of smarty-pants kid who enjoyed making school officials jump through legal hoops.

But, as he cowered near tears before a teeming herd of reporters outside the majestic marble halls of the mighty Supreme Court, he looked like precisely what he was, a timid, bespectacled 15-year-old who had been put up to this by his parents.

James says he only wanted to play football back in 1991 when his parents told him to tell Vernonia school officials that, no, he would not agree to the random drug tests the tiny lumber town's school system required of everyone who tries out for school sports.

Instead his parents, Judy, 41, and Wayne Acton, 44, asked the American Civil Liberties Union to sue the school on the grounds that James' Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable searches and seizures had been violated. A U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco agreed last year. The Supreme Court is expected to rule in June.

It's not an easy call, but I think the ACLU will win this one. Based on the evidence of drugs in their schools, which was slim, Vernonia's school officials used a sledgehammer to go after a flea.

Drug testing makes sense when it is based on safety and security needs. The Supreme Court allows wholesale, random testing for airline pilots, rail employees and others in areas where the government has a compelling interest in protecting the safety of others. And the high court also has ruled that public-school students do not have quite the same rights in general as adults.

But the evidence Vernonia officials had of rampant drug use in their schools consisted mainly of scattered reports of strange behavior (including head-butting of lockers and at least one reported episode of a student singing "Jesus Loves Me" in the rear of a classroom) and cocky boasting, characteristics that -- let's face it -- are common to teen-agers throughout the industrialized world.

Still, teachers had been complaining of a disciplinary crisis and officials decided it must be drugs.

Local drug arrests were not rising significantly before the testing began in 1989 or afterward. After the first year, to reduce the school district's liability to a lawsuit like the one the Actons filed, tests were limited only to those trying out for sports. Only two students have failed the tests.

School officials say discipline has improved since the policy began, but it is not clear if that's because of the random drug tests or because the original troublemakers were graduated out of the school.

Interestingly, alcohol and steroids also are serious problems among teen athletes, yet neither is included in the school's random drug tests. Instead, the focus is on hippie and yuppie drugs like marijuana, LSD and cocaine.

Tuesday the justices showed concern for a central question: Should large groups of students be randomly tested for drugs on the possibility that some might be users, or should tests be limited to individual students who show some sign or evidence of drug use?

The latter is the better way to go, although Vernonia's lawyers argued that the mere act of singling a student out, especially in a small town, can unfairly put a stigma on the student, convicting him or her even before the test is completed. That's a reasonable concern, but is it reasonable to respond by randomly invading the privacy of vast groups of students for the sake of a needle that may or may not be in the haystack? I think not. I hope not.

As a parent, I sympathize with school officials who are trying to keep order in the classroom and sobriety in their students. But, I also sympathize with the shortening of government arms when they intrude too much into personal and family affairs.

Schools get their best results when they fight drugs through education programs. As long as we are about the business of teaching lessons to our children, we should teach them something about the difference between effective drug fighting and cynical harassment.

It begs the issue to argue that drug testing shouldn't bother anyone who has nothing to hide. Who knows? Someday someone may think that you, too, could have something to hide.

If arms are the last line of defense against abusive government, as Second Amendment proponents argue, the Bill of Rights is the first line. Let's use it. Let's not abuse it.

Clarence Page is a syndicated columnist.

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