The Abruptness of Acton
Ronald F. Wright
Wake Forest University - School of Law
Criminal Law Bulletin, Vol. 36, P. 401, 2000
The Supreme Court's 1995 opinion in Vernonia School District 47J v. Acton held that a school board can require student-athletes to submit to random urinalysis drug testing as a condition of playing on the school team. In 1995, drug testing for students was not a common practice, and was not a matter of extensive public debate or litigation. This article details how the Acton decision popularized the idea of drug testing in schools and helped it spread nationwide. It reviews the litigation and public discussion about school drug testing, paying special attention to the practices of school districts in one state (North Carolina), and shows how these discussions and practices changed after the Acton decision.
After the Acton case, school boards debated the question far more often and began to adopt drug testing policies. When they talked about drug testing, school boards framed their proposals in terms dictated by the Supreme Court's opinion--focusing on the nature of consent that various student subgroups give--rather than talking about the real concerns of school officials, such as the impact of drug tests on the health and well-being of all students. The Supreme Court created the debate and pushed it in a particular direction.
Much of the legal activity described in the article does not appear in the pages of appellate judicial opinions. Instead, the legal arguments take place in official school board meetings, in discussions among school officials, and among citizens. The pages of local newspapers reflect these public debates more faithfully than the pages of case reporters. Thus, in addition to discussing the consequences of abrupt Supreme Court opinions, the article considers the blind spots of judico-centric legal scholarship. The discussion tracks the number of news stories on the subject of random drug testing in schools to measure its prominence as a topic of public debate.
Number of Pages in PDF File: 33
JEL Classification: K14, K42Accepted Paper Series
Date posted: October 18, 2000
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