Welcome to School. Please Check Your Constitutional Rights at the Door

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When it comes to parent-child relationships, neither side thinks much about kids' constitutional rights. But should expectations change when kids leave the house and head off to school? This is not a rhetorical question in many schools across the country, where students are increasingly subjected to ever more intensive invasions of privacy, from drug tests to locker searches. Some parents, perhaps exhausted by the demands of their own lives or simply sympathetic to the rigors of policing the behavior of modern adolescents, have praised educators' inclination to act in loco parentis, while others have resisted the schools' control over once private aspects of their children's lives.

Larry Tannahill falls into the latter category. According to a profile in Monday's New York Times, Tannahill, whose 12-year-old son, Brady, attends the local middle school, filed suit against the Lockney, Texas, school district for violating his and his son's Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable searches. School officials aren't looking for guns or knives on Brady: Like every student in Lockney's public middle and high schools, Brady is required to undergo periodic drug tests. Refusal to take the test provokes the same punishment as a positive test result: An in-school three-day suspension.

Although a vague 1995 Supreme Court ruling paved the way for testing student athletes for illegal substances, the sweeping Lockney policy could help define the limits of that decision. The problem, as far as Larry Tannahill and many critics of the decision are concerned, is the lack of legal precedent for schools' rights to institute mandatory drug tests. The Court's hazy decision has effectively given school districts carte blanche with regard to student "safety," and many parents have embraced the get-tough policies.

For the moment, anyway, Larry Tannahill seems to be fighting a solitary battle. Despite its extreme nature, the Lockney drug policy hasn't elicited nearly as much ire as Tannahill's protest has. Since filing his suit, Tannahill has lost his job as a farm worker (his former employer maintains his dismissal had nothing to do with the case) and has woken up to discover his dog covered in paint, lying amidst threatening notes on his doorstep. Tannahill tells the Times that his goal is simply to protect his son's constitutional rights, but his refusal to abide by the school district policy may have larger ramifications. The case is headed for federal court, and analysts predict it could end up before the Supreme Court — forcing the Justices to elucidate their ambiguous approval of school drug testing.