Appeals Court Halts Student Urine Testing

News Release: 
Friday, November 20, 2009

In a precedent-setting case, the Washington Court of Appeals has temporarily put a halt to Wahkiakum School District’s program of suspicionless urine testing for student athletes.  The action came in a lawsuit filed by the ACLU on behalf of two sets of parents of children attending Wahkiakum High School.  The lawsuit is the first case to challenge a student urine-testing program in Washington.

The appeals court action reverses a September, 2000 ruling by a lower court judge who had denied the ACLU's request for a preliminary injunction against the urine testing.  In granting an injunction pending a final ruling on the appeal, Court Commissioner Ernetta Skerlec pointed out that the Washington Supreme Court has held that general searches conducted without individualized suspicion are never permitted.  Commissioner Skerlec further noted that the school district has not shown student athletes use more drugs than the rest of the student body, nor was there any reason to believe that accidents cited by the district resulted from drug or alcohol use.  

“Forcing students to submit their urine to officials is a degrading practice that treats all student athletes as suspects.  The district’s policy is an effort to make a symbolic statement about drugs at the expense of students who simply want to be on sports teams,” said ACLU Legal Program Director Julya Hampton.            

“We object to the urine-testing policy as an unwarranted invasion of privacy.  We want school to teach our children to think critically, not to police them,” said Hans York, a deputy sheriff and plaintiff in the suit, along with Katherine York.  Sharon and Paul Schneider also are plaintiffs in the legal action.  Paul Schneider is a medical doctor who has served as a Medical Review Officer in a drug rehabilitation context.           

In the fall of 1999 the Wahkiakum School Board in southwest Washington adopted a policy providing that all students who take part in extracurricular athletic activities be subjected to urine testing without suspicion.  The policy was adopted without any convincing evidence that there is a significant problem among students with use of illegal drugs or that disciplinary problems have increased as a result of student drug use.        

The urine collection procedure substantially invades personal privacy.  Students are required to shed all extraneous clothing and to urinate in close proximity to an official.  A student who is unable to urinate without a medical reason will be deemed to be a drug user and will be barred from all extracurricular athletics.           

The lawsuit contends that the policy of suspicionless testing violates the “privacy clause” of the Washington Constitution (Article I, Section 7), which provides that “No person shall be disturbed in his private affairs, or his home invaded, without authority of law.”  In Kuehn v. Renton School District, in an ACLU case, the Washington Supreme Court in 1985 ruled that it is unconstitutional for public schools to search a student without individualized suspicion that he or she is breaking a law or school rule.  In that case, officials at Hazen High School in Renton had sought to search a student’s luggage prior to a school band trip.           

Experts in the fields of medicine and social science say that policies like Wahkiakum’s are the wrong approach to preventing drug use.  In a 1996 position statement opposing suspicionless drug testing, the American Academy of Pediatrics said the “students and student athletes should not be singled out for involuntary screening for drugs,” citing the importance of confidentiality and autonomy for adolescents and lack of accuracy in detecting certain drugs. 

Cooperating attorneys Jeff Fisher and Catherine Maxson of Davis Wright Tremaine are handling the case for the ACLU.