Lesson Plan: Reconciling Individual Rights with the Public Good: Drug Testing in the Schools

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Larry v. Lockney raises fundamental questions about rights, liberties, and the common good within the context of the issue of drug testing in public schools. The documentary explores the efforts of one small west Texas town to curb drug use in the middle school and the high school by requiring every student to submit to random testing. The film then profiles the lonely struggle of one parent, Larry Tannahill -- a cotton farmer and father of two boys -- against the school policy and community sentiment. More broadly, the film raises the tensions between majority rule and the rights of a minority in a constitutional democracy.

The film offers not one but several points of view in this controversy, by highlighting the perspectives of teachers, school board members, parents, students, journalists, attorneys, and interest groups. Legal and constitutional issues play a significant part in the story: a lawsuit brought by Larry Tannahill against the school board reaches, and is decided by, the federal district court. More generally, the issue of student drug testing is framed by two U.S. Supreme Court decisions -- Vernonia v. Acton (1995) and Board of Education v. Earls, decided in 2002, shortly after the film takes place.


By the end of this lesson, students will:

  • Understand the purpose of the 4th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
  • Analyze and differentiate the concepts of majority rule and minority rights.
  • Compare and contrast at least two viewpoints on the topic of mandatory drug testing for students.
  • Identify, and discuss the likely effectiveness of, alternative policies that schools could implement to deter student drug use.
  • Summarize the rulings of two U.S. Supreme Court decisions related to the 4th Amendment and student drug testing.

Subjects: American Government; Law; U.S. History; Psychology; Sociology.

Grade Level: 9-12

Estimated Time for Completion:

Preparation: One class period
Viewing the Documentary: One class period (57 minutes)
Post Viewing Activities: One or more class periods

Note: POV documentaries can be taped off-the-air and used for educational purposes for up to one year from the initial broadcast.

Materials Needed

VCR access
Videotape of the POV/PBS program Larry v. Lockney
Internet Access [desirable but not required]


Before Viewing the Documentary

Establish a framework for understanding the issues, viewing the documentary, and discussing the documentary and related issues.

  • Ask the students to discuss whether they think drug use is a serious problem among America's youth [for background information on the extent of drug use nationally among high school students, see a U.S. Government report at: http://www.ojp.usdoj.gov/bjs/dcf/du.htm]. In the students' eyes, is the drug problem widespread or restricted to just a few communities?
  • Summarize the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Vernonia v. Acton (1995). You may wish to distribute Handout 1, which provides a one-page, easy-to-understand summary of key excerpts from the Court's opinion in Vernonia.

Guiding questions for discussion:

  • Should athletes be singled out for mandatory testing?
  • Should students participating in other extra-curricular activities also be tested?
  • Under what circumstances, if any, should all students at the high school and/or middle school level be tested?

Viewing the Documentary

While students watch the documentary, require them to take notes to prepare for the discussion following the screening. You may suggest that students pay special attention to a particular theme in the film, such as what constitutes the evidence for widespread student drug use in the town of Lockney or the tension between majority rule and the rights of a minority in the town.

If time permits, have the students watch the film in its entirety in one class period. Otherwise, screen a portion of the film in one class period and complete the screening in the next available class period.

After Viewing the Documentary

In order to focus the students on the documentary, have students engage in a 10-minute writing exercise before beginning discussion. For example, ask the students to write down and briefly discuss the two strongest arguments for, and against, mandatory drug testing for all students.

Guiding questions for discussion:

  • Was the town of Lockney's drug problem among youth sufficiently widespread to justify a mandatory testing policy for all students? What evidence does the film provide?
  • Does the film portray Larry Tannahill in a positive light? In your opinion, is Larry an example of someone who courageously stood up for his beliefs or someone who stubbornly refused to see a serious community problem?
  • Did Larry's sons also object to the drug testing policy? What evidence does the film provide? Under what circumstances, if any, should parents substitute their own values for those of their children?
  • In a democracy, how do we reconcile the views of the majority with those of a minority? What is the role of the courts in resolving such disputes - to reflect popular opinion or protect the rights of individuals or a group?
  • Why did Larry and his attorneys decide to sue the school board in federal court, rather than in the Texas state courts? Are federal courts more likely to be receptive to civil liberties claims than state courts? Why (not)?
  • Why did the conflict result in a lawsuit at all? Was this inevitable? What kinds of compromise might Larry and the school board have reached without resort to litigation?


Mock School Board Meeting

Organize a classroom simulation designed to explore alternative ways to resolve the conflict in Larry v. Lockney. Have the students re-create the Lockney School Board meeting depicted in the film. Assign nine students to sit as school board members; assign additional students to play the roles of Larry Tannahill, his attorney, the school board attorney, and the local newspaper reporter. Have the remainder of the class serve as the audience for the meeting; encourage individual audience members to ask questions or make statements to the school board during the meeting. Assign to the class as a whole, or to the school board members, the task of preparing an agenda for the meeting, which identifies the issues to be discussed and the decisions or policies to be voted upon. After the role-play has concluded, assign students a short (in-class or homework) writing assignment that compares and contrasts the deliberations of the real school board meeting shown in the film with the mock school board meeting.

Other Lessons Available Online

For a sampling of additional lessons suitable for use in high school and/or middle school classrooms on the topic of drug testing in the schools, see the following resources:

American Bar Association
"Teaching about Drug Testing in Schools"
(Grades 8-12)

Close-Up on C-Span
"Classroom Activity: U.S. Drug Policy"
(Grades 9-12)

New York Times Learning Network/Teacher Connections

"A Test Case for Individual Rights: Assessing Whether Student Drug Testing Is a Violation of Student Rights"
(Grades 6-8; 9-12)

"A World Torn by Drugs: The Effects of Drugs on International Relations"
(Grades 6-8; 9-12)


"Drug Wars"
(Grades 9-12)


David E. Newton. Drug Testing: An Issue for School, Sports and Work. Enslow Publishers: 1999.
A text designed for middle school and high school students. Explores the ethical and legal considerations involved in drug testing. Contrasts individual rights and public safety viewpoints.

Jennifer Lawler. Drug Testing in Schools: A Pro-Con Issue. Enslow Publishers: 2000.
A book designed for middle school and high school students. Explores the history and methods of drug testing, including opinions and positions from students, parents, coaches, administrators, and school boards.

Further Research

For students seeking to do additional research on drug testing in the schools, the following sites may be helpful:


Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning

(See http://www.mcrel.org/compendium/browse.asp )

Civics Standards and Benchmarks
(18) Understands the role and importance of law in the American constitutional system and issues regarding the judicial protection of individual rights, Level IV (Grade 9-12)

(No. / Description)

1 Understands how the rule of law makes possible a system of ordered liberty that protects the basic rights of citizens

5 Understands how the individual's right to life, liberty, and property are protected by the trial and appellate levels of the judicial process and by the principal varieties of law

7 Understands the importance of an independent judiciary in a constitutional democracy

Language Arts Standards and Benchmarks

(1) Uses the general skills and strategies of the writing process, Level IV (Grade 9-12)

(No. / Description)

9 Writes persuasive compositions that address problems/solutions or causes/effects (e.g., articulates a position through a thesis statement; anticipates and addresses counter arguments; backs up assertions using specific rhetorical devices [appeals to logic, appeals to emotion, uses personal anecdotes]; develops arguments using a variety of methods such as examples and details, commonly accepted beliefs, expert opinion, cause-and-effect reasoning, comparison-contrast reasoning)

10 Writes descriptive compositions (e.g., uses concrete details to provide a perspective on the subject being described; uses supporting detail [concrete images, shifting perspectives and vantage points, sensory detail, and factual descriptions of appearance])

(9) Uses viewing skills and strategies to understand and interpret visual media, Level IV (Grade 9-12)

(No. / Description)

1 Uses a range of strategies to interpret visual media (e.g., draws conclusions, makes generalizations, synthesizes materials viewed, refers to images or information in visual media to support point of view, deconstructs media to determine the main idea)

2 Uses a variety of criteria (e.g., clarity, accuracy, effectiveness, bias, relevance of facts) to evaluate informational media (e.g., web sites, documentaries, news programs)


(Download this handout as a PDF file)

Vernonia School District 47J v. Acton 515 U.S. 646 (1995)

[Summary Excerpts from Justice Scalia's Opinion of the Court]


Vernonia School District operates one high school and three grade schools in the logging community of Vernonia, Oregon. School sports play a prominent role in the town's life, and student athletes are admired in their schools and in the community.

In the mid-to-late 1980s, teachers and administrators observed a sharp increase in drug use. Students began to speak out about their attraction to the drug culture and became increasingly rude during class. Not only were student athletes included among the drug users, but athletes were the leaders of the drug culture.

Initially, the school district responded to the drug problem by offering special classes, speakers, and presentations designed to deter drug use. It even brought in a specially trained dog to detect drugs, but the drug problem persisted.

District officials began considering a drug testing program. They held a parent "input night." The school board approved the policy for implementation in the fall of 1989. Its expressed purpose is to prevent student athletes from using drugs, to protect their health and safety.

In the fall of 1991, respondent James Acton, then a seventh grader, signed up to play football at one of the grade schools. He was denied participation, however, because he and his parents refused to sign the testing consent form. The Actons filed suit.


The Fourth Amendment does not protect all subjective expectations of privacy, but only those that society recognizes as "legitimate." Fourth Amendment rights are different in public schools than elsewhere; the "reasonableness" inquiry cannot disregard the schools' custodial and tutelary responsibilities for children. Legitimate privacy expectations are even less with regard to student athletes. School sports are not for the bashful. Public school locker rooms, the usual sites for these activities, are not notable for privacy.

That the nature of the concern is important - indeed, perhaps compelling -- can hardly be doubted. Deterring drug use by our nation's schoolchildren is important. The effects of a drug infested school are visited not just upon the users, but upon the entire student body and faculty, as the educational process is disrupted.

Taking into account all the factors we have considered -- the decreased expectation of privacy, the relative unobtrusiveness of the search, and the severity of the need met by the search -- we conclude Vernonia's Policy is reasonable and constitutional. [Nevertheless], we caution against the assumption that suspicionless drug testing will readily pass constitutional muster in other contexts ....