Meet Larry Tannahill. Out of 2,200 residents in the West Texas town of Lockney, he was the only parent to object to the school board’s mandatory drug-testing policy in 2000. Tannahill, a third-generation cotton farmer, believed the testing was a violation of his 12-year-old son’s Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable search and seizure. Forming an unlikely alliance with the American Civil Liberties Union, he sued to overturn the policy, and found his life forever changed.
Larry and Brady Tannahill.
In the battle that ensued, Tannahill made headlines as his case went to the U.S. District Court. Although he won the lawsuit, his victory came at great personal cost: he lost his job and his home, and became a target of threats. Larry v. Lockney takes a personal look at all sides in this landmark case that pitted one man against his friends and neighbors.
In February 2000 the Lockney Independent School District, near Lubbock, Texas, instituted a mandatory drug-testing policy for junior and senior high school students; it was reported to be the most sweeping drug-testing program in the country. When Tannahill refused to sign the consent form for his son Brady to participate, the school district planned to punish Brady with an in-school suspension, drug counseling and removal from extracurricular activities: the same penalty for those who flunked the test.
In March 2000, Tannahill filed suit with the help of the ACLU. The district’s school board then dropped the in-school suspension and drug counseling requirements, but Tannahill and the ACLU continued the suit in Federal District Court, attracting intense and unwanted media attention to the small town of Lockney. Tannahill found himself ostracized in the community, where parents, teachers and students alike were overwhelmingly in favor of the new policy.
In March 2001, U.S. District Judge Sam Cummings ruled that Lockney’s drug-testing policy was unconstitutional. The following month, the Lockney Independent School District dropped plans to appeal the decision. The school district settled with the ACLU and agreed to pay some of Tannahill’s attorneys’ fees and return to its policy of testing only students who volunteer or who appear to be under the influence of drugs.
While understanding the fine balance between protecting individual liberties and maintaining public security, many see a difficult road ahead. “It’s going to be a lot harder for parents to sign their kids up for voluntary drug testing than it would be for parents to say, ‘You’ve got to; the school says so’,” remarks Alice Gilroy, editor of the Floyd County Hesperian-Beacon and a parent herself.
If a court can settle the legal wrangling, it can’t rule away the toll that this case took on Larry Tannahill and his family. He notes without bitterness, “It’s worth your job. It’s worth some ridicule from your community if you believe in what you’re fighting for.”