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Judge Again Orders Stop to Mo. College Drug Tests

COLUMBIA, Mo. — A federal judge on Friday again blocked efforts by a central Missouri technical college to drug-test its students, a policy challenged as unconstitutional by the American Civil Liberties Union.

U.S. District Judge Nanette Laughrey in Jefferson City granted a preliminary injunction that temporarily prevents Linn State Technical College from screening all first-year students and some returning students for cocaine, methamphetamines, oxycodone and eight other drugs.

The two-year school also cannot report the test results from September 2011, when it began the program and collected urine samples from 500 students before the American Civil Liberties Union of Eastern Missouri filed suit on behalf of six students. The lawsuit claims the program violates students’ Fourth Amendment rights against unlawful searches and seizures.

Laughrey’s ruling comes after a federal appeals court decision in January that overturned a previous restraining order she had issued, with the appellate court calling it too broad. The ACLU quickly filed a narrower challenge that seeks to protect current students, said ACLU attorney Tony Rothert. The original complaint sought to also protect future students at school’s campuses in Linn, Jefferson City and Mexico, Mo. Physical therapy students enrolled in cooperative programs between Linn State and two community colleges also were subject to the policy.

Rothert said Friday’s ruling suggests the judge will likely overturn the entire policy.  While the school is arguing the tests are necessary for student safety, the judge’s 18-page order points to testimony by a Linn State mechanical drawing teacher who said his students typically do nothing more dangerous than sit at a computer or a drafting table with sharpened pencils.

The ACLU attorney conceded that the school may have legal backing to drug-test students in such areas as aviation maintenance, heavy equipment operations, and industrial electricity programs, but noted that most Linn State students aren’t enrolled in those riskier pursuits.

“While Linn Tech might be able to show a need to drug test 20 or 30 students who are enrolled in very specific programs, that does not give them the authority to drug test all of their students,” he said.

Kent Brown, an attorney for the technical college, did not respond to telephone messages left at his Jefferson City office.

The case is set for trial on July 1, but Rothert said it could be postponed should the school appeal the judge’s latest order.

The ACLU has said it was unaware of any public college or university in the U.S. with a similar drug testing program. Under the program, students who test positive for drugs could remain in school if they have a clean test 45 days later. They also must complete an online drug prevention course or would be assigned to other, unspecified “appropriate activities,” according to the school’s written policy. They would remain on probation for the remainder of the semester and would face an unannounced follow-up test.

Federal and state courts have consistently upheld more limited drug testing of public high schools students, such as those who play sports, as well as NCAA athletes and students at private colleges. But the move by Linn State to enact widespread drug tests of the general student body appears unprecedented.

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