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Judge blocks most mandatory drug testing at Linn State

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: Questioning whether a student who is taking a course like drafting is really a danger to others, a federal judge has blocked most mandatory drug testing at Linn State Technical College.

The school instituted the testing in the fall of 2011, saying that its students are training for fields in which they will operate heavy machinery and will be in positions where impairment by drugs could pose significant threats to public safety.

But the American Civil Liberties Union filed suit to block the plan, saying that the school has no history of drug problems among its students and no reason to suspect that the students who would be tested are using illegal drugs. So, it argued, the testing plan would violate the constitution’s Fourth Amendment right against illegal search and seizure.

In a ruling issued last week, U.S. District Judge Nanette Laughrey agreed. She issued a preliminary injunction against the testing until the case could be decided on its merits and barred reporting the results of most testing of urine specimens collected in September 2011.

She said that the ruling does not apply to urine specimens collected from students who were or who have since enrolled in Linn State’s aviation maintenance, heavy equipment operations and industrial electricity programs.

In an email to the Beacon, Donald Claycomb, president of Linn State, defended the testing program, saying it “is both safety related and preparation for the world of work.”

He added:

“We believe drug screening is doing what is best for our students.  We are not advocating it be done for all students in higher education. The mission of Linn State Technical College is to prepare students for profitable employment and a life of learning. It is becoming more and more common for our graduates to drug test as part of the hiring process.”

But Tony Rothert, legal director for the ACLU of Eastern Missouri, said that Laughrey’s ruling “affirms the privacy and personal dignity of hundreds of students who were forced to supply their college with urine samples before they could take any classes. Without a compelling need, a search of your bodily fluids is exactly the type of unreasonable search and seizure that the Constitution prevents the government from imposing.”

Why the plan is there

The college, in Linn., Mo., is the state’s only two-year public technical college with a statewide mission, offering about three dozen academic programs. It has about 1,100 students.

It announced the drug-testing program in the fall of 2011, saying it wanted to prepare its students for the kinds of qualifications needed in the jobs they were being trained for.

The school’s website said students would be charged $50 to pay for the testing; those who refused would be subject to "an administrative or student-initiated withdrawal.”

Students who tested would have a period of approximately 45 days to be screened again, during which they could remain in school but 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 called "appropriate activities." A second positive test would lead to a mandatory withdrawal from Linn State.

Students could seek a waiver from the test for a variety of reasons, including "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."

School officials said they knew of no drug problems among students, but they wanted to impose the tests to simulate the conditions that would be in place in jobs where heavy equipment or technology would be used.

Soon after the requirement was put into place, the ACLU and a group known as Students for a Sensible Drug Policy objected and threatened to file suit. When the school went ahead with its plan, it was challenged in court.

What the courts have said

The district court issued a preliminary injunction after a hearing in October 2011, but in January of this year, the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals vacated that order, saying that “although Linn State’s drug-testing policy may have some unconstitutional applications, we are unable to say that it is unconstitutional on its face in every conceivable circumstance.”

The case returned to the district court, where Laughrey ruled on March 22 that a new injunction go into effect.

She gave several reasons:

  • That “the drug-testing policy was designed and implemented by Linn State’s administration and the only democratic check on this process was approval by a body of gubernatorial appointees who are largely insulated from public pressure and oversight. There is no indication that the policy was presented for public notice and comment like administrative regulations or that the policy was ever submitted for approval by any by any elected official.”
  • That the school did not cite “any authority that supports the proposition that individuals can be required to ‘opt-in’ to their constitutional rights or lose their ability to sue for their infringement…. the evidence in this case makes clear that there was no guaranteed result for a student who petitioned to be excused from the program [and] … there were no clear standards by which a petition to be excused from testing would be judged.”
  • That “there is no evidence that the students tested in September 2011 were enrolled in programs that posed significant safety concerns to others.” She noted that in one case, a drafting class where students use a pencil and paper or a computer to create designs, the only risks “appear limited to the possibility that a student might accidentally hurt herself, such as by stumbling or falling while navigating uneven ground during a site visit.”
  • That even though students may enroll in classes outside their own field of study – courses that may involve possibly dangerous situations – “if the mere possibility of cross-enrollment was sufficient to justify mandatory, suspicionless drug testing, then seemingly every public university in the country could constitutionally adopt such a policy. Nearly every school could likely identify a course or courses that entail some work that poses a safety risk to others.”

Laughrey added:
“Considering the frequency with which college students change their majors, these schools might plausibly claim that every incoming student could potentially enroll in such a safety-sensitive class.”

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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