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Lawsuit tests unique drug-testing policy at Linn State Tech

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 17, 2011 - Before this school year began, Linn State Technical College didn't have a drug-testing program or a chapter of the organization Students for Sensible Drug Policy.

Now it has both, though a lawsuit prompted a federal judge to suspend the testing, at least temporarily. The student chapter began after the school in central Missouri announced it would become the first college in the nation to test all incoming students for drugs, in what it called an effort to prepare them for a world of work where such tests are common.

But when the American Civil Liberties Union of Eastern Missouri challenged the program in a federal lawsuit, a judge put it on hold until a hearing on Oct. 25.

Linn State in Linn, Mo., says it doesn't believe its students have any greater drug problem than those at other colleges, but it says it instituted the testing program because "we do differ in our mission and teaching environment."

That mission, says spokeswoman Carla McDaniel, involves preparing students for jobs where they are likely to face a drug test before or after being hired, so they should get used to the process ahead of time. Asked how the school's aim of preparing students for good jobs after graduation differs from that of any other campus, she replied:

"We don't have specifics that compare us with other colleges, but our motivation is to prepare students for possible employment. That is our pure mission, and we want to prepare them to go out and get jobs and the best careers they can."

To Aaron Houston, executive director for Students for a Sensible Drug Policy, a nationwide group with headquarters in Washington, that goal may make sense, but the college's testing procedures go way overboard.

"I applauded the college's principle," Houston said, "that they wanted to help these students. But I suggest that instead, they simply create a course to let students know that they may be eligible to be drug-tested."

The college has 1,100 students overall. It is Missouri's only two-year public technical college with a statewide mission, offering about three dozen academic programs.

How the Program Works

According to a Q-and-A on the college's website, the drug-testing program works like this:

All students entering the college this fall or those who have been away for one or more semesters were to take a urine test five to 10 days after the semester began. The drug-testing program is funded by a $50 student fee. Students who refused to be tested would be subject to "an administrative or student-initiated withdrawal" -- in other words, they're out.

Justifications for seeking a waiver from the program include "unique health issues, technical concerns, participation in another similar program, exclusive participation in campus programs, which do not pose unique health and safety issues, moral objections, philosophical objections, religious objections, and legal objections."

Options available to students who object to being screened will be explained by college staff, and if a particular issue is raised by more than one student, "a meeting may be held where all interested students and their representatives may present information and arguments through representatives of their choosing."

Students whose tests are positive would have a period of approximately 45 days to be screened again. They may remain in school during that time, on probation. Depending on the drug detected, they would be required to complete an online educational program, for which they would pay $35, or be assigned to complete what the college calls "appropriate activities."

If a second test comes back positive, students must withdraw from the college. Because Linn State's policy for refunds states that no tuition payments may be refunded after three weeks of the semester has elapsed, students who withdraw would not receive any tuition money back.

Drugs that the test can detect, the college says, are cocaine, amphetamines or methamphetamines, marijuana, opiates, phencyclidine, benzodiazepines, barbiturates, methadone, methaqualone, propoxyphene and oxycodone. The college says the "lab-based testing is extremely accurate."

Students whose drug tests are negative will not be screened again, except for cause. Students whose first tests are positive but second tests are negative are subject to later random screening and remain on probation for the rest of the semester.

Positive results will not be posted on a student's transcript or permanent record. Nor will they be released to law enforcement agencies, though a college statement adds that "observations and information" not related to the screening program "shall be communicated as appropriate."

Why it's there

Officials at Linn State say they knew they would be the first school in the country to institute such a drug-testing program, but they think it's a necessary step in the education of young people planning to get jobs in a variety of technology, heavy equipment and other fields where such testing is a routine condition of employment.

McDaniel said the idea came from industry councils in those fields. Linn State began promoting the policy last fall, when it was recruiting the class that would begin this year, and she said she has heard of no negative feedback from faculty or students.

College President Donald Claycomb told a campus gathering earlier this month that in 2008, Linn State sent a survey to 333 members of its program advisory committees asking whether the college should consider testing all students for drugs. Of those that responded, he said 83 percent said yes.

Did the college think there was a drug problem on campus?

"There were some indications, based on information that was received, that would indicate that we weren't above or below the normal in that regard," McDaniel said.

In an interview with the New York Times, Kent Brown, attorney for the college, explained the need for the program this way:

"There was a feeling that the college wasn't properly stepping up to prepare the students for getting jobs in industries where drug testing was becoming the norm and an unavoidable barrier to getting and keeping the good jobs in the industry. There was an educational motivation as well."

Concerning the attention that the school's policy has attracted, Brown said:

"A lot of notoriety has arisen from the fact that there's a perception we are testing an entire student body. Well, the student body at Linn State is very different from, for example, the University of Missouri or Harvard or some place like that. We are a technical college. We do heavy equipment operations. The vast majority of our training programs deal with either high-voltage electricity or heavy equipment operations, dangerous, caustic chemicals or combinations of the above. All of these things are things we need to guard against for the safety of the students."

Once the lawsuit was filed, college President Donald Claycomb announced that a legal defense fund had been established to help pay expenses to defend the drug-testing policy. McDaniel said the legal fight was expected to cost the college between $50,000 and $100,000; she had no estimate about how much had been raised so far, or what the goal for the fund would be.

Why Opponents Object

In his meeting earlier this month, Claycomb said that the college was warned by the ACLU and the Students for a Sensible Drug Policy that they would file suit if the drug-testing policy went forward. He said legal counsel for the college contacted the organizations and asked that they consult with the school about what they thought might be reasonable.

But Houston, the executive director of the SSDP, told the Beacon that "it's not accurate to say he worked with us in a good faith way to mold this in a way that was acceptable. We made it very clear it was unacceptable and made it very clear that we would sue them.

"One of my first questions to them was: Were they aware what an extraordinary case they were making? They acknowledged they were very aware that what they were doing was a unique and unprecedented effort to drug-test students without suspicions."

Anthony Rothert of the ACLU said the school only got in touch with his office about the drug testing when it received a demand letter saying a suit was likely to be filed. Then, right before the policy was adopted, the campus sent over what it planned to put into effect.

At that point, Rothert said he and others with the ACLU went to campus to look into the situation, let students know what their rights are and find possible plaintiffs to file suit.

"I was a little surprised at first when we were talking to students at how many did not even know or understand there might be a constitutional issue here, that they might have a right to privacy," he said.

"As we talked to more of them, there were quite a few who were aware of their rights but were frightened to take on the school. But there were some who were brave enough to stand up and say, 'This is wrong.'"

The suit -- filed on behalf of five students at the college -- says that the school "has no documented drug problems over the course of its 50-year history and no reason to suspect that the students subject to testing have been engaged in the use or abuse of illegal drugs." The student plaintiffs are enrolled in such programs as electronics engineering technology, design drafting technology and heating, ventilation and air conditioning technology.

It said the policy of mandatory testing without suspicion violates the Fourth Amendment's guarantees against unreasonable searches as well as the students' rights under the 14th Amendment.

Houston noted that the American Academy of Pediatrics and others have come out against random student drug testing, and he said legal precedent will back up the case against it. Given that situation, he said he was at a loss about why Claycomb and Linn State would proceed as it has.

"This is totally, totally unprecedented," he said. "I have no idea what the reason is. It's bizarre. It's going to cost the school a lot of money. Clearly, he thinks this is important, but I am a little surprised that after so many groups with such a deep involvement with this issue so swiftly contacted him to express serious misgivings about the legality and the morality of such a program, he didn't reconsider.

"I find that a little perplexing It's just incredibly illogical. They clearly do not have the law on their side."

Dale Singer began his career in professional journalism in 1969 by talking his way into a summer vacation replacement job at the now-defunct United Press International bureau in St. Louis; he later joined UPI full-time in 1972. Eight years later, he moved to the Post-Dispatch, where for the next 28-plus years he was a business reporter and editor, a Metro reporter specializing in education, assistant editor of the Editorial Page for 10 years and finally news editor of the newspaper's website. In September of 2008, he joined the staff of the Beacon, where he reported primarily on education. In addition to practicing journalism, Dale has been an adjunct professor at University College at Washington U. He and his wife live in west St. Louis County with their spoiled Bichon, Teddy. They have two adult daughters, who have followed them into the word business as a communications manager and a website editor, and three grandchildren. Dale reported for St. Louis Public Radio from 2013 to 2016.

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