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Districts ponder drug test ruling ramifications

| Wednesday, Nov. 26, 2003

A recent Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruling on student drug testing will not stop such programs in two Westmoreland County school districts for now.

Last week, the state's highest court allowed a lawsuit filed against the Delaware Valley School District in Pike County to proceed. The suit, filed by two sisters and their parents, revolves around the district's policy to randomly test students who participate in athletics and extracurricular activities and those who hold parking permits at the school.

The ruling seemingly provides Pennsylvania students with more privacy rights under the state constitution than are afforded federally. It breaks with a 2002 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that upheld random testing of students involved in extracurricular activities in an Oklahoma school district. Schools have been allowed to test athletes under federal rulings for several years.

The Pennsylvania court ruling said the Delaware Valley district failed to show that the students it tests contribute to any drug problem and how testing addresses such problems.

"It appears that certain students were targeted for symbolic reasons since they were deemed to be 'role models,'" the ruling states.

But some local school districts with drug-testing programs said their policies are limited to student athletes, including cheerleaders, and believe the state court ruling will not affect them.

Dave McNichol, Derry Area School District's athletic director, said officials there will continue the policy of testing athletes, which began in 1999.

"Our policy was based on past court cases, and the circumstances in the Delaware Valley case do not tie in with Derry at all," McNichol said.

He said the district believes the inclusion of all students in extracurricular activities and those given parking passes in the Delaware Valley policy have caused it problems.

McNichol said numerous court cases have said student athletes have less privacy than other students because, for example, they use communal showers.

He added that the district had spoken on an administrative level about testing those students who drive to school, but they decided to hold off until this lawsuit sees its way through the courts.

In Derry, more than 450 students have been tested over the years. Only three have tested positive.

The Franklin Regional School District just put its drug-testing policy into place this fall. They have tested all fall and winter sport athletes and cheerleaders thus far -- about 1,000 students. Superintendent Dr. Pamela Pulkowski would not say how many, if any, students tested positive, citing student privacy issues.

The district will continue the testing despite the court decision, although Pulkowski was not yet sure how the ruling would affect Franklin Regional.

"I have asked our solicitor to carefully review that ruling and to advise me and the board so that we are appropriately and accurately informed and are able to make decisions based on his counsel," she said.

The district's solicitor, William Andrews, said he has just started to study the ruling. He said the ruling seems clear that drug testing of students in extracurricular activities and those with parking permits are not permitted under the state constitution.

But the issue of testing athletes isn't as clear with this latest court action.

"That may still be open to debate back and forth," he said.

Andrews said that in a ruling on the same case, the Commonwealth Court leaned toward testing athletes because it is reasonable to believe drug abuse could be occurring in that population.

"It would appear that the Supreme Court, at least at first blush, has left that portion of (the Commonwealth Court ruling) intact," Andrews said. "Franklin Regional took a real conservative approach. When we passed the policy, we didn't include extracurricular activities. Basically, I think we're in OK shape in Franklin Regional."

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