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Widespread drug tests to start at Linn State

Wednesday, September 7, 2011 | 4:23 p.m. CDT

LINN — Textbooks? Check. School sweatshirt? Check. Urine specimen cup? Only if you want to stay in school.

A drug-free demand greeted new students Wednesday at Linn State Technical College, a two-year school in central Missouri that has enacted what may be the most far-reaching drug testing policy at a public college or university in the country.

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 — and no small point of pride for administrators at the state's only technical college.

"It does appear that our program is unique in its scope and breadth," said Kent Brown, a Jefferson City attorney who represents the 1,200-student school, located about 100 miles southwest of St. Louis. "But there aren't very many colleges as unique as ours."

School leaders say the tests, which they prefer to call drug screenings, are necessary to ensure student safety at a campus where the coursework includes aircraft maintenance, heavy engine repair, nuclear technology and other dangerous tasks. They surveyed hundreds of local employers, who overwhelmingly supported a requirement those same students will soon encounter in the job market, said Richard Pemberton, associate dean of student affairs.

"They're going to be faced with this as they go into the drug-free workplace," he said. "We want them to be prepared."

All first-year students — including those pursuing general education degrees while studying accounting, communications, math and social sciences — must comply with the requirement, which began Wednesday, two weeks into the fall semester. So must returning students who took a semester or two off and are seeking a degree or academic certificate at the school's campuses in Linn, Jefferson City and Mexico, Mo. Physical therapy students enrolled in cooperative programs between Linn State and two community colleges in northern and southeastern Missouri also must participate.

The mandatory drug tests are raising the hackles of civil libertarians, who call it a constitutional violation of students' Fourth Amendment protection against unlawful searches and seizures, an invasion of privacy and a likely lawsuit target.

"I've never heard of any other adult public educational institution that presumes to drug-test all of its students," said Columbia attorney Dan Viets and member of the Missouri Civil Liberties Association. "They're trying to break some new ground here. I don't think the courts will uphold it."

While Linn State officials say they are working to address the objections by Viets' group, the attorney suggested that a legal challenge was imminent unless the program is halted.

"I don't know why they think they can get away with it," Viets said. "I hope we don't have to go court. But if we have to we will."

Brown, the school's attorney, said Linn State is on firm legal footing. He noted that more narrowly-focused drug tests for students who work with heavy machinery, or in some health professions, are not uncommon.

The tests screen for 11 drugs, including marijuana, cocaine, methamphetamine and oxycodone. Students who test positive can stay in school while on probation but must test clean 45 days later to remain enrolled while also completing an online drug-prevention course or assigned to other, unspecified "appropriate activities," according to the school's written policy.

Students who initially test positive but then test negative at a later date will remain on probation for the rest of that semester and also face an unannounced follow-up test. The tests cost $50, a fee paid by students.

"We wanted this to be more of an educational approach," Pemberton said. "What we're doing here is not as strenuous as in the workplace."

"We've been very careful about treading on their rights to privacy," he added. "When you do something that has the potential to violate someone's rights, you have to be cautious."

New and prospective students were advised about the testing program in the spring, as well as during fall orientation.

Viets said his group learned of the new program from Linn State students who were concerned about the drug tests. First-year student Brian Crider, though, said his classmates aren't worried about the requirement.

"I don't think a lot of us are bent out of shape," he said. "I think it's a good idea. It helps us prepare for the real world."


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