ACLU sues schools over drug tests; 18 students were tested at Easton High after report of party; 'They were humiliated'; Lawyer says county has right to act on off-campus activity


EASTON -- In what is thought to be the first legal challenge to a school drug-testing policy in Maryland, the American Civil Liberties Union has filed suit against Talbot County school officials, who in January ordered 18 Easton High School students to provide urine samples that were then tested in the school auditorium.

According to papers filed yesterday in U.S. District Court in Baltimore, the students, ages 13 to 18, were told they would be suspended and possibly expelled if they did not submit to the tests. Parents who were called to the school say they were told to sign consent forms or their children would be immediately suspended.

Detained and questioned in the school auditorium, some for as long as four hours, students provided urine samples in specimen bottles that were lined up on the auditorium stage and tested with throwaway kits similar to those used for home pregnancy tests.

"It's among the most outrageous cases I'm aware of nationally," said Andrew M. Dansicker, an attorney with the Baltimore firm of Venable, Baetjer and Howard, who with the ACLU is representing parents and students. "I've talked to some of the students. They were humiliated and embarrassed, and they still are."

Named in the lawsuit filed on behalf of four students and the newly formed Talbot County Advocates for Student and Parental Rights, were the Talbot school board, Superintendent J. Sam Meek, Easton High Principal Timothy Thurber, pupil services coordinator Beth Nobbs and Sarah Smith, a county health department employee who conducted the tests.

Yesterday, Meek said school officials are reviewing the case, but that he could not comment on legal issues.

Separated, questioned

The incident began Jan. 18 when the students were called from morning classes and told to assemble in the auditorium. After being separated and questioned individually, the teens were told they would be tested for drugs.

A school security officer waited outside a restroom stall as boys provided urine samples.

A female guidance counselor stood by in a one-toilet restroom as girls did the same, according to the suit.

Parents who were called and told to report to the school were incredulous that officials made no effort to keep the test results confidential.

"They lined up the specimen bottles on the stage, put in the stick in each one to see if it changed color and called out each kid's name," said Denise Nolan, whose daughter, 15-year-old Jamie, was among those tested.

'I couldn't believe it'

"I was standing there filling out the consent forms and they're calling out the name of each student and the result of the test. I couldn't believe it. It was like dealing with the Gestapo," she said.

According to court documents, school officials were told by a student that a group of teen-agers had attended a private party in nearby Oxford two days earlier where drugs and alcohol were used. Students who were identified as partygoers were called from classes and told to go to the auditorium.

Lawyers for the plaintiffs say none of the tests produced a firm positive result, although some initially suggested a positive result.

One student whose test showed a positive result was escorted from the grounds by school officials in full view of fellow students. He was later reinstated after a private drug test arranged by his parents showed the first test had been false, said Dansicker.

Lynn Ewing, president of the parent group whose 18-year-old son was among those called to the auditorium, said the teen-ager, who is not part of the lawsuit, agreed to be tested despite her objections.

"He said he wanted to be tested because if he didn't, everyone would think he had done something wrong," Ewing said. "He was put in a position where he had to justify his innocence. Bizarre is the only word to describe it."

Parents say the action violates state law, which allows local school officials to take disciplinary action against students caught with alcohol or drugs on school property.

Baltimore attorney Edmund O'Meally, who represents the Talbot school system, mentioned numerous examples of students who have been disciplined for off-campus violations of drug and alcohol policy. Obvious examples are high school athletes who are kicked off sports teams for using drugs or alcohol, he said.

Meeting with officials

"At this stage, I really know little more than what's contained in the suit, but we will be meeting this week with school officials," O'Meally said. "Talbot County is not doing any drug testing on students until this is sorted out. But the Maryland State Board of Education has ruled that schools can take action against students for off-campus activities."

Parents say they were also disturbed by an incident at Easton High in December when school officials searched the locker of a student suspected of drug use. No drugs were discovered, but officials read a diary found in the locker and ordered students whose names were mentioned to submit to drug tests.

"I don't want this to be detrimental to my daughter," said Nolan. "I felt this was something we had to do. There's just no concept of civil rights."

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