WASHINGTON – Like any other junior high student in the dusty Texas farming community of Lockney, Brady Tannahill has studied the Bill of Rights in school. But unlike most, the 12-year-old is going to court to defend it.
Last December, the Lockney Independent School District announced a new strategy in its war against drugs in the schools: Starting in February 2000, every junior and senior high school student would have to submit to drug testing.
The district sent home a release form for all parents to sign, authorizing school officials to test their children. But when Brady’s father, Larry, received it, he did something unexpected: He just said no.
“I believe in my son,” says Tannahill. “My wife and I have no reason to suspect he takes drugs. The school system has no reason to suspect he takes drugs. I say, given those facts, that there is no reason for him to be tested for drugs.”
Brady agrees. He doesn’t think his school has a problem with drugs and doesn’t know any kids in his class that take them. “I just don’t think it’s right that I have to be tested,” he says.
The district responded to the Tannahills’ refusal by threatening to suspend Brady from school. Then, in what’s shaping up as the civics lesson of a lifetime, Brady and his father, with the help of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), filed suit against the district in federal court in Lubbock, claiming the mandatory drug testing policy violates Brady’s Fourth Amendment rights.
The high-stakes legal battle that’s emerging could affect students’ rights not only in tiny Lockney, but all across the country. It has turned a father and son into national news makers. But it’s also made them hometown pariahs, spurned by many in the community.
In March, about 700 people — nearly a third of the town’s population — turned out for a school board meeting where the elder Tannahill was to speak against the district’s plan. Many wore T-shirts that read, “The LISD Drug Policy — We Appreciate It.”
During the meeting the audience erupted in loud ovations for adult and student speakers supporting the policy. Tannahill spoke to dead silence and got no applause or support.
The next day, Tannahill’s employer at the Floyd County Farm and Ranch Supply told him he had missed too much work and his services were no longer needed. His boss, Lindan Morris, told reporters that his firing was unrelated to the controversy, but Morris later told a Texas newspaper, The Plainview Daily Herald, that some customers had stopped coming in because they didn’t want to see Tannahill.
Tannahill has also lost some friends and even received threats. Last March, his dog, a boxer, was sprayed orange with a paint gun. A note left at his home said, “Next time it won’t be your dog.”
Many Lockney residents seem to see the father as a lone dissenter and obstructionist who’s getting in the way of a much-needed program. “It is very easy to sit back smugly and say that good parents would know if their child was using drugs,” says Lisa Mosley, a former school board member and now an art teacher at Lockney High School. “But even good kids in good homes become addicted.”
Warren Mathis, a Lockney resident for 58 years, says Tannahill has forgotten that other parents in the community also have rights. “People here don’t think much of Tannahill now,” Mathis says.
The reaction of his neighbors has been tough on Tannahill, who didn’t plan on getting himself labeled the town rebel and has never been involved in politics. Rather, Tannahill sees himself simply: He’s a father who had always spent a lot of time with his son, ever since the days when Brady was a toddler and Larry would bring him along while he worked the fields at his father’s farm. He feels as though he knows his son almost as well as he knows himself. “A lot of folks in our family say that Brady was potty trained on a tractor,” says Tannahill. “He’s always been the most important thing in my life.”
Now he shakes his head over the uproar and his new role challenging authority. “I was born and raised in this town, and I am surprised at the reaction I have received,” says Tannahill. “There are people here that support me, but they see what I’ve been through now and don’t want to speak out. I just cannot believe that people are willing to sit back and let the school system raise their kids and take their constitutional rights away. I won’t do that and I don’t care how many people around here disagree with me.”
Brady has fared better than his father. The school board has stayed any disciplinary action against him until after the case is resolved, which won’t likely happen before the end of the year. And neither the administration nor his fellow students have given him a hard time. “He went through school like nothing was happening,” says Tannahill, who plans to home-school his son if he loses in court. “The kids here are being more adult about this than the adults are.”
Lockney district officials say they decided to implement the new policy after concluding that their schools had a significant and growing drug problem. The board began discussing the policy in 1997, when 13 indictments were handed down against local drug dealers.
“The information [police] got from the dealers is that they were selling to the students,” said Don Henslee, an Austin, Texas, lawyer representing the Lockney school system. “Based on that, the community literally insisted that the school system do something in terms of a drug policy.”
It’s an outcry that’s been heard in school districts across the country. But after several decades of Supreme Court rulings, legal experts say that districts only have the clear right to test students engaged in sports or other extracurricular activities. Blanket testing of all students has not yet been reviewed by the high court.
The right of schools to test athletes stems from a 1995 case in which the Supreme Court upheld a Veronia, Ore., school district’s policy of testing all student athletes. Other federal courts later expanded the scope of that ruling to include students involved in other school-sponsored extracurricular activities.
Writing for the majority in the Oregon case, Justice Antonin Scalia reasoned that testing student athletes is justified because other students might emulate them. “It seems to us self-evident that a drug problem largely fueled by the ‘role model’ effect of athletes’ drug use, and of particular danger to athletes, is effectively addressed by making sure that athletes do not use drugs,” he wrote.
Broad testing policies are being challenged in other parts of the country as well. In Maryland, the ACLU and a group of parents have filed suit against Talbot County school officials, who in January ordered urine testing of 18 students at Easton High School. All of them had attended a party where drugs were said to have been used. The specimen bottles were lined up on the stage of the school auditorium where they could be viewed by students, teachers, and parents. They were then tested with cheap throwaway kits similar to those used for home pregnancy tests.
One of those tested was 15-year-old Jamie Nolan, who said she felt violated by the process. “I did not appreciate that the school took time during — review for final exams in order to wrongfully accuse us and make us feel guilty,” she told WebMD.
Another Easton High student who tested positive was expelled — and then reinstated when a private testing company reexamined the student’s specimen and found no evidence of drug use.
The Lockney case is now in discovery and is not expected to be heard in federal court until the end of the year. Eventually, ACLU lawyers predict, it could end up at the Supreme Court, where the justices may finally determine how far school districts can go in their search for students on drugs.
Meanwhile, the Tannahills are using their mutual love of baseball to help them cope with the tension of the case. The end of a long day is often the beginning of a long game of catch in the front yard of their home. Larry has coached Brady’s baseball teams for years, watching him rise from T-ball to the “major league” level in the area’s Little League program.
In between games, father and son give interviews; their story is being told around the world. Brady remains a bit bewildered by it all. “I don’t understand why so many people are so interested,” he says.
Tannahill doesn’t know what to expect if his case goes before the U.S. Supreme Court. He filed this lawsuit, he says, because he’s determined to protect his son’s rights, and his own rights as a parent.
“My boy was given to my wife and me by God,” he says. “In the end, it is our responsibility to raise him. He is not the school district’s responsibility.”
Michael D. Towle is based in Chantilly, Va., and writes regularly on health and legal issues for WebMD.
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