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High court ruling on drug testing widens debate in public schools


NEW BUFFALO, Mich. - In this serene lakeside town, a group has gathered at the high school each week since August to try to hammer out a consensus on drug testing in the schools: a pastor, a basketball coach, a sheriff, a social worker, a superintendent and assorted parents, teachers, students and school board members.

They have debated whether a first offense should bring counseling or punishment and whether they can best deter drug use through education or testing. They have studied the merits of urine, hair and saliva tests. But week after weary week, they have adjourned without agreement.

Until June, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that schools could conduct drug tests on students involved in extracurricular activities, the school board here had given the matter little thought. But here and in towns across the nation, drug testing has become a hot issue. Rather than resolving the question, the ruling has touched off passionate debate.

Hundreds of school boards nationwide are considering whether - and how - to use drug tests. The proposals they are considering range from voluntary programs offering incentives, such as discount coupons for students who agree to be tested, to, in a few places, testing all students.

Before the Supreme Court's decision, about 5 percent of the nation's public school districts conducted drug tests of student athletes - a practice that the court upheld in 1995. But many districts decided the legal parameters of testing were so uncertain that they should await further guidance before adopting a plan.

The new ruling opened the way for much wider testing of students. It upheld the Tecumseh, Okla., schools' policy that required random urine testing as a condition for participating in any extracurricular activity involving interscholastic competition. Lindsay Earls, the student who challenged the policy, said it violated her privacy rights and the Fourth Amendment's prohibition of unreasonable searches.

But the majority opinion, written by Justice Clarence Thomas, said the search was reasonable, given the nationwide epidemic of drug use by schoolchildren.

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