Vernonia School District 47J v. Acton (1995)

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Editor: Lawrence W. Baker
Date: 2011
Supreme Court Drama: Cases That Changed America
From: Supreme Court Drama: Cases That Changed America(Vol. 2: Criminal Justice and Family Law. 2nd ed.)
Publisher: Gale, a Cengage Company
Document Type: Topic overview
Pages: 5
Content Level: (Level 4)
Lexile Measure: 1260L

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Page 519

Vernonia School District 47J v. Acton (1995)

Petitioner: Vernonia School District 47J

Respondent: Wayne Acton

Petitioner's Claim: That random drug testing of high school student athletes does not violate the Fourth Amendment.

Chief Lawyer for Petitioner: Timothy R. Volpert

Chief Lawyer for Respondent: Thomas M. Christ

Justices for the Court: Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Anthony Kennedy, William Rehnquist, Antonin Scalia (writing for the Court), Clarence Thomas

Justices Dissenting: Sandra Day O'Connor, David Souter, John Paul Stevens

Date of Decision: June 26, 1995

Decision: Found that the random drug testing of high school student athletes does not violate the Fourth Amendment, as the practice promotes the legitimate interest and concerns of government.

Significance: The Court's finding established the legality of random drug testing in public schools, leading to several school districts adopting drug testing policies.

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There was no denying it. Beginning in 1988, the Vernonia School District in Oregon was in trouble. A small town, Vernonia's school athletes were typical in that they enjoyed an elevated social status among their peers and even throughout the town. When school authorities began to notice their athletes talking about and participating in the drug culture of Vernonia, they expressed concern. But when the disciplinary referrals within the schools doubled in number from those seen in the early years of the decade, officials knew something had to be done. Even coaches began to agree that drug use was impeding their athletes’ performances and was probably responsible for some recent serious injuries.

The story begins

School officials felt the need to confront the drug problem, so they began their search for an effective, realistic drug policy. Since many of the users were athletes who enjoyed their prestigious status, authorities chose to focus their efforts on athletic programs. After talking with district parents, the school enacted a Student Athlete Drug Policy in the fall of 1989. All sports participants and their parents were required to allow the students to submit to a drug search program throughout the competitive year. This would include a urinalysis at the beginning of the practice season and randomly throughout the year. A positive test would result in a retesting before any action was taken. Should a second positive result be found, the athlete's parents would be informed and the student would be offered two options: accept a two-year suspension from school sports programs or enter a treatment program that included weekly urina-lyses. The district's parents were unanimously in favor of the policy.

Seventh-grader James Acton wanted to play football in the fall of 1991. When his parents refused to sign the consent form for testing on the grounds that it invaded their son's right to privacy as guaranteed by the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments, James was forbidden to participate in scholastic sports.

His parents filed for an injunction against the district, but their case was dismissed and was appealed to the Ninth Circuit Court. The court found in favor of the Actons and deemed the drug policy a violation of both amendments as well as the Oregon State Constitution. Now it was the school district's turn to appeal, and the case was heard by the Supreme Court on March 28, 1995.

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James Acton of Vernonia, Oregon, and his family and attorneys leave the Supreme Court after arguments in the Vernonia School District 47J v. Acton case. AP IMAGES MARCH NIGHSWANDER.

James Acton of Vernonia, Oregon, and his family and attorneys leave the Supreme Court after arguments in the Vernonia School District 47J v. Acton case. AP IMAGES/ MARCH NIGHSWANDER.

School as parent

With a 6–3 vote, the Court found in favor of the Vernonia School District. In an opinion written by Justice Antonin Scalia, the Court determined that the right of protection against unreasonable searches and Page 522  |  Top of Articleseizures as put forth in the Fourth Amendment was not violated by the drug policy because the deciding factor was the measure of reasonableness. Given the increase in drug use, disciplinary actions taken against students, and problems within the athletic programs, the implemented policy was reasonable. It was made even more so because it was common knowledge that the leaders of the town's drug culture were, in fact, athletes.

The drug testing, which constituted a type of search, did not require a warrant because of certain established laws. These state that a search unsupported by probable cause can be constitutional “when special needs, beyond the normal need for law enforcement, make the warrant and probable-cause requirement impracticable.” In this case, the Court recognized the existence of “special needs” within the public school context.

This was the point on which Justice Sandra Day O'Connor dissented. She was not in favor of blanket searches but believed the historical tendency to warrant searches based on individualized suspicion was more just. In this case, the evidence justifying the drug testing program was based on stories involving particular, identifiable students. According to Justice O'Connor, the school would have been within its legal rights to test those select students only.

The Court also determined the policy within the legal bounds of the Fourteenth Amendment, which protects individual rights to privacy. Chief Justice William Rehnquist explained, “By choosing to ‘go out for the team,’ they voluntarily subject themselves to a degree of regulation even higher than that imposed on students generally. In Vernonia's public schools, they must submit to a preseason physical exam (James testified that his included the giving of a urine sample), they must acquire adequate insurance coverage or sign an insurance waiver, maintain a minimum grade point average, and comply with any ‘rules of conduct, dress, training hours and related matters as may be established for each sport by the head coach and athletic director with the principal's approval.’” Given this scope of privacy, the policy was seen as minimally intrusive.

The Court noted that students are voluntarily put under the authority of school personnel by their parents, making said personnel de facto parents while students are under their instruction. This fact, coupled with the increased regulations inherent in school athletics, led the majority to judge the policy within constitutional bounds. The case was remanded to the court of appeals for reconsideration.

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For more information

Gold, Susan Dudley. Vernonia School District v. Acton: Drug Testing in the Schools. Tarrytown, NY: Marshall Cavendish Benchmark Books, 2006.

Persico, Deborah A. Vernonia School District v. Acton: Drug Testing in Schools. Berkeley Heights, NJ: Enslow, 1999.

“Scope of the Amendment.” . (accessed on December 19, 2010).

“Vernonia School District v. Acton (47J).” Law Library-American Law and Legal Information. (accessed on December 19, 2010).

“Vernonia School District v. Wayne Acton.” University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law. (accessed on December 19, 2010).

Source Citation

Source Citation   (MLA 8th Edition)
Brannen, Daniel E., Jr., et al. "Vernonia School District 47J v. Acton (1995)." Supreme Court Drama: Cases That Changed America, edited by Lawrence W. Baker, 2nd ed., vol. 2: Criminal Justice and Family Law, UXL, 2011, pp. 519-523. Gale Ebooks, Accessed 20 Nov. 2019.

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX1929200118

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  • Acton, James
    • 2: 520
    • 2: 521 (ill.)
  • Acton, Vernonia School District 47J v. (1995)
  • Drug testing
  • Drugs, illegal
  • Fourteenth Amendment
    • drug testing
      • 2: 522
  • Fourth Amendment
  • O'Connor, Sandra Day
    • Vernonia School District 47J v. Acton (1995)
      • 2: 522
  • Rehnquist, William H.
    • Vernonia School District 47J v. Acton (1995)
      • 2: 522
  • Scalia, Antonin
    • Vernonia School District 47J v. Acton (1995)
      • 2: 521-22
  • Schools, public
  • Vernonia School District 47J v. Acton (1995)