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Lincoln County School falsly accuses student of drug abuse; Oregon Court of Appeals upholds faulty field tests as evidence

14-year-old Leslie Jensen was summarily suspended on May 2, 2000, from Waldport Middle School on the basis of "field drug tests" which supposedly showed she was under the influence of marijuana. Immediately after the school's accusations were made Leslie was tested for the presence of drugs in a local lab. The lab's chemical analysis revealed she had no drugs in her body.

The school officials and police who were quoted in the News-Times article, 5/10/00, were solely concerned to cover their behinds and defend their policies and procedures. There were no apologies. The quoted statements were all in denial of having made a serious error - because they followed the established proceedure. The assurances that they know of no other instance where the "field tests" have been found to be in error do not take into account whether other parents of accused children went immediately to a laboratory and had conclusive tests run. It is quite possible other children have been unjustly charged and punished because they were not given laboratory tests.

I think that if I had been a parent of Leslie, I would have been very disappointed in the failure of Lincoln County School District officials to take seriously the injustice they did to my daughter. As a parent, what I would have wanted was an admission from the school officials and the police who were involved that the procedure is flawed, that it resulted in an innocent girl being accused and punished and embarrassed, and most important, that a thorough investigation and policy review was being undertaken. From the press coverage it is clear this policy review is not forthcoming. Apparently the only way to get the attention of such managers, both public and private, is for their mistakes to cost their organizations money. This is a large part of the reason people sue for damages; it is primarily a matter of principle, not money, for the plaintiffs.

To make matters worse, just a few days after the Leslie Jensen matter was publicized in the News-Times, The Oregonian (5/25) reported the Oregon Court of appeals recently issued a ruling allowing the admission of field test results into evidence in cases of drivers suspected of operating a vehicle while under the influence of intoxicants. (State of Oregon v. Debra Sampson).

While the theoretical protocols for such tests are scientifically-based, as cited by the court, they are only useful as general indicators of impairment, loss of coordination, balance, reflexes, etc. The test results do not address the issue of the cause(es) of the impairment. The finding of impairment by a skilled tester, in the case of drivers, is clearly a presumptive basis for removing them from the road. However, judgements about the actual causes of impairments are far less well-founded. As in the case of young Leslie Jensen, the inference that the impairment is due to drugs, over-the-counter, prescription, or illegal drugs, is a complex medical judgement, and goes far beyond the operator's training and the evidence in the case of field tests. The individual may have physiological impairments; circumstances such as fatigue, hunger, or illness may produce impairments. Furthermore, if drugs are said to be the cause, the question of which drug(s) is critical in order that the accused have an opportunity to rebut the charges. In the absence of a specified drug, the accusation of drug impairment is Kafka-esque. Reliable identification, based solely on field tests, of specific drugs causing impairments, would be nothing short of medical magic.