A Family Responds to Suspicionless Drug Testing

he whole issue started in the spring of 2006 when I was a freshman in high school. The school district announced they were planning on obtaining a grant for and adopting a policy of mandatory, random, suspicionless drug testing for all participants in co- and extra-curricular activities. The way the school’s testing worked was that if you wished to participate in such activities (sports, school plays, band, clubs, student government, etc.), your name would be entered into a pool from which names would be chosen randomly for drug testing. This was funded by a federal grant, and the program was heralded by the George W. Bush administration as "a silver bullet against drugs."

The School Board held a meeting in order to gauge public opinion about the concept of suspicionless drug testing. The superintendent showed a pro-drug-testing video, and then asked the audience members whether they would they vote for or against the testing if they were all made honorary members of the school board. Out of approximately 50 people that showed up for the meeting, only three voted in favor of the testing. My father spoke up and said that, as Quakers, the method of the policy would cause our family unease and the need for deep soul searching.

The policy’s objective certainly resonated with our family; it was the method of accomplishing it that did not seem right. When we considered the policy from a Friends point of view, it appeared to be against our approach, beliefs, and testimonies. The policy seemed to be at inherent conflict with the Truth Testimony and went against the principle of integrity, and it had a non-trusting aspect in general. When we discussed the policy with other Quakers in our meeting and in other meetings that we visited, they were, very largely, all on the same page in feeling that the policy was harmful and against Quaker ideals. Often non-Friends seem to have difficulty understanding that Friends have no creeds or laws, but testimonies, which are like time-tested examples of feelings to follow. This in itself is a way of allowing freedom—giving people guidelines to follow, but letting them use their individual consciences to make decisions for themselves. It is one way of encompassing the belief that there is that of God in everyone, and it is a way of seeking to recognize it.

In many ways these guidelines are very similar to the principles upon which our nation was founded. Being innocent until proven guilty and protected from unlawful searches and seizures are ideas that are fairly close to the way most Quakers would deal with issues. Drug testing is often used in professional sports and the workplace, yet in schools it seemed like a small erosion of freedom and an inappropriate example for students, besides the substantial conflict with our religious beliefs. It was one small thing we could stand up to, and one little way we could try to help the school to look at the idea of teaching responsibility instead of fear. To try to steer students in the right direction and offer guidance in their decision making regarding drug abuse would be a wonderful cause, but to scare them into making a good decision felt wrong. While there are those who believe it is better to be feared than loved, I do not fully understand or agree with this. I know fear can be a powerful motivator, yet in the end it does not seem right. To have an entirely effective policy or law, people have to develop their own self-guidance. They need to have a conscience, and that should be encouraged. They need to make the right decisions for themselves. In a certain sense, policing breeds the "it’s okay to do it if you don’t get caught" mentality. People need to have the opportunity to be trusted in order to have a chance to prove to others that they are trustworthy.

It seemed to my family, and to some others in the community, that the policy would further isolate kids with drug troubles. I didn’t think drug usage was a large problem in our school, but this policy seemed to have the potential to escalate whatever problem already existed. With suspicionless drug testing, students that take drugs and participate in some sort of extracurricular activity would either be forced to quit the activity, quit the drugs, or risk getting caught. I thought that many students who used drugs would probably, and unfortunately, pick the drugs over the potentially helpful school activity.
Other Quakers offered us a great deal of support in seeking religious exemption from the policy. Our local meeting set up a clearness committee to help us feel our way forward. I had a couple of very lengthy talks with the principal regarding my brothers’ and my suspension from co- and extra-curricular activities. The principal was very nervous about his role in the situation, although I do think I was able to provide him with more insight toward resolving the matter.

The superintendent told us the Board was "looking at creating a religious exemption policy in light of our need," and gave us the feeling the problem would be resolved. It took them several months to consider an exemption policy before they decided that it was not needed because the state already has a religious freedom law in place. We were told that we were not covered under the state’s religious freedom laws because our request did not qualify. This was because, unbeknown to us, the school had also taken it upon themselves to research Quakerism and in doing so made numerous mistaken assumptions, putting forth the view that the random suspicionless drug testing did not interfere with our faith, but was consistent with it. We responded by talking with the sources the district would disclose to us, and then writing a letter to the district pointing out the misunderstandings, trying to help them to understand our Quaker view. We received no response to the content of these letters.

We were then told by the district’s lawyer that to be religiously exempt, we would need to provide a letter from a religious authority in our church, such as a priest, stating that the drug testing policy was a substantial burden to our faith. We spoke with, and obtained letters from, three Quaker "authorities": Jay Marshall, dean of Earlham School of Religion; Thomas Swain, clerk of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting (PYM); and Arthur Larrabee, then clerk of PYM Interim Meeting and now general secretary of PYM. Each wrote on our behalf and reaffirmed our position.

The school district said that review of the letters would take a couple of weeks, which became four months with my brothers and me still out of school programs. During this delay we became concerned that our request might somehow be denied, so we wrote to the superintendent asking that if for any reason they were going to deny the request, we be given the opportunity to come before the Board to address any concerns the Board might have. Because the district had made the situation a legal matter, and despite our not having involved lawyers, Board discussions had been in executive session without us present because they were discussing "a legal matter." This enabled the attorney for the district to push a one-sided perspective and seemed to distance us from the Board and negate our Quaker view. Some Board members believed in our position all along, and the Board remained closely divided throughout. Still, the balance was not yet tipping our way, despite the effort and attention the Board gave the matter.

The school district’s attorney generated a 12-page legal brief against our being granted a religious exemption and attempted to invalidate what the Quaker leaders had written on our behalf. Because the district had made the situation a legal matter, our meeting committee urged us to seek legal help in response, something we were very hesitant to do. After Mom read some legal briefs on suspicionless drug testing at the local library, Dad contacted the lead lawyer, Marsha Levick, one of many who had jointly authored one such brief to the U.S. Supreme Court. Marsha is a co-founder at the Juvenile Law Center in Philadelphia. The Juvenile Law Center kindly volunteered to help us pro bono in our continued efforts to seek a religious exemption and lined up Matthew Hamermesh of Hangley, Aronchick, Segal, & Pudlin to anchor the efforts, along with some of his colleagues.

We were told, based on a preliminary vote, that we would likely be denied an exemption, but we could address the School Board. We decided the lawyers from the Juvenile Law Center should come to the meeting to listen to what was said and meet the Board, but not speak or represent us (yet).

At the meeting, my dad spoke comprehensively and concisely to each of the district’s concerns and misunderstandings, trying to explain Quaker ideals and beliefs. He then offered to answer questions. A portion of the Board was not so focused on the merits of our request, but rather on whether or not a "floodgate" of requests would open up if we were granted exemption. As far as we know, we are and were the only practicing school-aged Quakers in the district, and no other religions were identifying religious concerns with the policy, so opening a floodgate did not seem to be a likely problem.

In a subsequent executive session meeting, the Board officially denied our request. The lawyers began to help us by drafting material for a legal suit, although we were very strong in our desire not to file one. We wanted to cooperate with the district, persuade with reason, and not rabble-rouse in the community. The lawyers at the Juvenile Law Center were very respectful of our desired approach, even though they thought it would make for an interesting and exciting hearing if it went to court.

By the spring of 2008, the information a suit would contain was ready and the lawyers presented it to the attorney for the district rather than the suggested approach of filing suit. The district’s lawyer immediately saw the need for an exemption for us, not because he finally understood our religious convictions, but because he "understood the sincerity of our request." He did, however, want to place a number of restrictions on the exemption that was offered to us. It went back and forth between the district’s lawyer and the lawyers helping us, but we could not reach an agreement that both of us were satisfied with on what, if any, restrictions would come with our exemption. We had reached a stalemate, yet the district realized the situation needed to be solved.

My dad made an appointment and our whole family went to the superintendent’s office and had a good hour-long discussion with him about our need. He came to further understand our point of view. We had several more conversations, and he subsequently spoke with and convinced the School Board to grant us an exemption on terms we could accept. It took two years, with my brothers and me out of programs, but we finally obtained the exemption—and just in time for the start of baseball season!

My family and I believe in basic freedoms as well as religious rights. We are also very persistent and willing to sacrifice to resist policies that we don’t feel are spiritually consistent. (Thomas Swain described my dad’s approach as "tenderly tenacious.") In resisting this policy, although my brothers and I were not allowed to participate in the activities we wished to, we did gain other opportunities in a strange way. For instance, although I was denied participation in the school’s student government, to which I had been elected, I was accepted for positions on the advisory boards of our State representative and U.S. congressman. We also became friendly with Thomas Swain and Arthur Larrabee of PYM, Jay Marshall of Earlham School of Religion, the superintendent, School Board members, and the lawyers from the Juvenile Law Center and Hangley, Aronchick, Segal, & Pudlin, both in Philadelphia, who volunteered significant effort and considerable expertise at a point when things felt near impossible.

The negotiations with the school district were also instrumental in helping me realize that I had an interest in law and possibly in becoming a lawyer, while the twists and turns and alternative styles in negotiating helped me understand different ways to accomplish a goal. In the end, it took my family two years of going around with the school district and the school district’s lawyer, but we did eventually gain an exemption, mainly through perseverance and friendly persuasion.
Should another Quaker family encounter a suspicionless drug test policy and feel the need for religious exemption, a lot has been learned, and exemption may be possible with comparative ease. The Juvenile Law Center is a helpful resource, and Quakers are invited to contact the Amblers through Friends Journal.

Gilbert Ambler

Gilbert Ambler is attending Earlham College this fall and is interested in political leadership and law. Gilbert's two younger brothers, Amos and Harry, and his parents, John and Peggy, have all participated in thinking through this article about the situation they all lived. Gilbert and his family are members of Germantown Meeting in Philadelphia and attend Penn Hill Meeting in Wakefield, Pa.