In a matter of first impression, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals addressed whether a public school system may require all applicants for substitute teaching positions to pass a drug test as a condition of employment.  The Fourth Amendment typically prohibits the government from engaging in searches without any suspicion of wrongdoing. However, in December 2018, the court held that the government had demonstrated compelling interests that overrode applicants’ privacy rights:  ensuring the safety of millions of children in the mandatory supervision and care of the state and ensuring a drug-free environment in the nation’s classrooms.

Although neither the Supreme Court nor the Eleventh Circuit had addressed the issue before, the court referred approvingly to an earlier decision by the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, in which that court upheld suspicionless drug-testing of public school teachers.  Knox County Educ. Ass’n v. Knox County Bd. of Educ., 158 F.3d 361 (6th Cir. 1998).  Both courts recognized teachers’ responsibilities to protect the students they serve, to respond with urgency to the variety of problems that may frequently arise, and to act as role models for students.  The Eleventh Circuit noted that parents are compelled under force of law to place their children in the care of the schools. The court cited to the rising number of school shootings to demonstrate that teachers may be called upon to protect students from deadly and immediate harm on a moment’s notice.  The court reasoned that a teacher under the influence of drugs is significantly less likely to respond promptly and soundly than a sober and clear-headed teacher.

Finally, the court pointed out that individuals who choose careers working with children have a diminished expectation in their privacy because teaching is a heavily regulated field.  Teachers in many school districts are already required to undergo criminal background checks and submit to fingerprinting. The court found it significant that, in this case, urine samples could be provided in a minimally intrusive manner.  Likewise, results of the tests would not be revealed to law enforcement but would only be accessible by a few individuals who would be required to maintain confidentiality.

With these safeguards in place, the court concluded that the safety of schoolchildren and the maintenance of an environment conducive to learning are compelling interests that override substitute teacher applicants’ privacy interests.  

Article written by Partner & Attorney, Melanie Kilpatrick.

Friedenberg v. School Board of Palm Beach County, 911 F.3d 1084 (2018).