Judge Stanley Marcus of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit. Courtesy photo

A federal appeals court has ruled that a South Florida school district has not violated the Fourth Amendment by mandating drug testing for substitute teachers.

Judge Stanley Marcus of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit held that the School District of Palm Beach County “has a sufficiently compelling interest” to screen possible substitute teachers for drug use. “The School Board has not violated the constitutional mandate barring unreasonable searches and seizures,” he wrote.

The plaintiff in the case, Joan Friedenberg, brought a civil rights complaint against the Palm Beach County School District after she refused to submit the drug tests mandated by the school district for employees and volunteers. Her case was brought before Marcus following an appeal, as the district court ruled that “the balance of interests strongly favored the policy of suspicionless testing of substitute teacher applicants.”

The judge was joined in his opinion by Chief Judge Ed Carnes and Judge David Ebel. The panel found that public schools enjoy “unique circumstances” for perceived intrusions upon privacy and protection from unreasonable searches and seizures.

Read the opinion: 

“Suspicionless searches are permissible in a narrow band of cases where they serve sufficiently powerful and unique public needs. The force of these needs depends heavily on the context in which the search takes place,” the opinion held. “As we see it, ensuring the safety of millions of school children in the mandatory supervision and care of the state, and ensuring and impressing a drug-free environment in our classrooms, are compelling concerns.”

The opinion emphasized the need for substitute teachers—like other school district employees—to be able to flexibly and reliably ensure students’ safety under sometimes-intense and volatile circumstances.

“If schools are going to be able to handle emergencies that threaten children’s safety, teachers will need to be able to identify and respond to emergencies quickly, decisively, and with sound judgment,” Marcus wrote. “As acute situations arise, and we know they will, the danger posed by leaving children, especially young children, in the care of an intoxicated teacher is profound. A teacher under the influence of drugs is significantly less likely to respond promptly, efficiently, and with sound judgment than a sober and clearheaded teacher.”

“This testing regime, we think, provides the kind of immediate—that is, proximate—response to the threat posed by drug-using teachers,” the opinion continued. “The school district could reasonably conclude, as it obviously did, that testing at a later date, after a problem is uncovered and while a substitute is already standing in the front of a classroom, would not adequately protect schoolchildren.”

The court ultimately ruled that the school district’s policy posed a “minimal intrusion” upon the plaintiff’s privacy interests and affirmed the lower court’s denial of a preliminary injunction.

James K. Green, a West Palm Beach attorney who served as Friedenberg’s counsel, expressed disappointment with the ruling in a statement provided to the DBR.

“We appreciate the thought given by Judge Marcus to our arguments, but respectfully disagree that, on this record, there is ‘a diminished privacy interest owing to the unique Fourth Amendment context of the public schools,’” the statement read.

Requests for comment from Adam Wolf, Green’s co-counsel, were not returned by press time. Nancy Gbana Abudu of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida and West Palm Beach lawyer Nancy Udell were also listed as the plaintiff’s legal representation, and did not respond to the DBR by deadline.

The litigators employed by the School District of Palm Beach County—Jean Middleton, Sean Fahey and Shawntoyia Bernard—also did not respond by press time.