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Vernonia School District 47J v. Acton Lawsuit Facts


Vernonia School District 47J v. Acton is a lawsuit in which the U.S. Supreme Court found Oregon’s student-athletes selective drug testing policy in compliance with the U.S. Constitution, particularly the Fourth Amendment. According to the results of the Court decision, before taking part in the competition, students were required to take drug tests, and such tests could be carried out randomly, without warning. The emergence of such a case was preceded by the heightened interest of schools in preventing drug use by adolescents. The judgment sparked controversy among the public and split people into two camps. Many felt that the Supreme Court ruled that the rights of schoolchildren could be arbitrarily limited compared to ordinary citizens’ rights. However, for those who categorically opposed the distribution and use of drugs, this decision was a victory.

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Facts and Questions before the Court

In 1980, drug use by high school athletes escalated in the Vernonia School District, attracting the attention of district officials. Nevertheless, the conducted classes and the speakers’ presentations on the dangers of drugs did not affect the situation. Therefore, the district initiated a program whereby all athletes were tested for drug use at the start of the season. Also, every week, 10% of the randomly selected athletes had to be tested. The program has been structured in such a way as to maximize the security of student data. In addition, the creators of the program have done everything possible to ensure that the data is not accessible to persons without the necessary authority. The parents of seventh-grade student James Acton refused to sign consent to be tested. As a result, James was removed from the competition; subsequently, the Actons filed a lawsuit. They believed that the district was violating constitutional guarantees against unreasonable searches. The Court had to determine whether the school board policy was in line with the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Procedural History

When the case reached the Supreme Court, hearings had already taken place, and decisions were made in the district and appellate courts. The federal district court upheld the school board’s drug testing policy. However, the appellate Court overturned this decision, referring to the violation of the Fourth Amendment policy and the Oregon Constitution. Finally, the case was heard in the U.S. Supreme Court on March 28, 1995. The U.S. Supreme Court granted certiorari – it requested a case from a lower court for review.

Holding of the Court

The Supreme Court concluded that the school policy meets the reasonableness requirement of the Fourth Amendment and is thus constitutional (Vernonia School District v. Acton, 1995). The final vote of the judges was 6: 3 in favor of the school. It was concluded that the school policy to allow spot testing of student-athletes for drugs did not constitute an unreasonable search and seizure under the Fourth Amendment. However, the Court indicated that its decision should not be an excuse to expand drug-testing programs further. Accordingly, the decision of the appellate Court was overturned and remanded.

Legal Reasoning

The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution is part of the Bill of Rights. The Amendment prohibits unwarranted searches and detentions and requires that any search warrants be issued by a court if there is sufficient reason. Collecting and analyzing a human urine sample is considered a “search” for the Fourth Amendment. During such searches, the officials must strike a balance between the interests of a particular person and the state’s interests. Therefore, an analysis should be carried out as to how harmful actions of a specific person are contrary to public welfare.

If the parties interests are balanced, it should be considered possible to implement drug search and drug tests.

In general, the confidentiality of schoolchildren is reduced compared to adults, as they are subject to regular supervision by the school management. The Supreme Court ruled that because school athletes typically face mandatory medical examinations and other similar privacy violations, they expect less privacy than the average student does (Vernonia School District v. Acton, 1995). They take pre-season exams and usually share common changing rooms. The pre-season screening program is designed to identify female and male athletes at risk of injury during the competition. Moreover, collecting a urine sample should not be considered intrusive, as observers of the same sex only observe to avoid sample tampering.

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The Actons’ position was that officials did not observe the standards for maintaining the confidentiality of the information received during the tests. However, the test results were only disclosed to a small group of school officials, not to law enforcement. Moreover, while Vernonia’s policy required students to disclose prescription drugs a student was taking in advance, the Supreme Court was reluctant to assume that the school district would abuse health information disclosed by student-athletes. Thus, the Court concluded that the invasion of privacy was “insignificant.”

The spread of drugs, especially concerning schoolchildren, requires attention from the school’s authorities. The reduced level of student confidentiality, the importance of the problem, and the insignificant nature of the searches conducted suggest that the school board’s policy does not violate the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. However, since the Court’s decision was not unanimous, attention should be paid to the concurring and dissenting opinions of the judges.

In her concurring opinion, Justice Ginsberg noted that only student-athletes are tested. However, questions remain unanswered about whether such testing can be carried out among all students and will be considered in accordance with the constitution in general and the Fourth Amendment in particular. Justice O’Connor argued that the student drug-testing program included searches of students who did not give authorities a reason to charge them with drug use. Historically, the Supreme Court has disapproved of mass searches, especially in a criminal context, but the decision gives authorities the authority to conduct such examinations at the school. In her opinion, a suspicion-based policy could have no less effect on eradicating drug use in schools. Its essence is that specific facts and rational conclusions from these facts are required to make an arrest or issue a search warrant. Justice John Paul Stevens and Justice David Souter joined O’Connor’s position.


Thus, despite disagreements between the judges, a decision was made on the legality of screening student-athletes for drug usage. The Supreme Court ruling set a precedent for similar cases, but the findings of the case cannot be used to justify the introduction of arbitrary drug tests in schools. Judicial reasoning can be considered convincing and does not contain any logical contradictions. The lawsuit showed that there is no unanimous opinion among the public on how to solve the problem of the spread of drug addiction among schoolchildren participating in sports competitions.


Vernonia School District 47J v. Acton, 515 U.S. 646 (1995). Web.

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