He Just Said No

UPDATED 08/21/2000 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 08/21/2000 at 01:00 AM EDT

A farming community of some 2,300 in the Texas Panhandle, Lockney might seem at first glance far removed from the drug problems facing larger cities. So Larry Tannahill was surprised last January when his son Brady, 12, came home with the news that the town's schools would be requiring every student from sixth grade up to submit to routine urine tests. What disturbed Tannahill, 36, was the presumption of guilt: Parents were warned that if they didn't sign a form consenting to the exams, their children would be treated as if they had tested positive and punished with in-school suspension and a temporary ban from extracurricular activities. "It's not right," says Tannahill. "It's going against everything they're teaching these kids about government."

Tannahill and his wife, Traci, 35, refused to sign—and they were the only parents to do so. Frustrated after protesting the policy to school officials and speaking out at a public meeting, Tannahill took his complaint to another level: In March he sued the school district in federal court on the grounds that the policy violated his son's Constitutional protection from unreasonable search and seizure. As a result, Tannahill has found himself ostracized in the town, where four generations of his family have lived. He is also out of work, fired from his job with a farmer whose wife and sister are employed by the school district. Still, he vows to fight on. "We're trying to raise these boys with trust," he says of Brady and his brother Coby, 11. "And I just believe they've taken that away." An A and B student who has never been in trouble, Brady stands firmly with his dad. "I don't think it's right," he says of the policy. "They are just telling you, 'Do it or else.' "

Whether the court backs up the Tannahills remains to be seen. In 1995 the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a policy allowing random drug testing for student athletes in the small town of Vernonia, Ore. Citing an American Academy of Pediatrics policy critical of drug testing, Graham Boyd, a lawyer handling Tannahill's suit for the American Civil Liberties Union, argues that such policies haven't been shown to curb abuse. "They look tough on drugs," he says, "but they're not effective."

Despite its bucolic setting, Lockney has had its battles with drugs. In September 1998, after a lengthy undercover investigation, a grand jury indicted 11 locals, all adults, on charges of cocaine trafficking. (Eight defendants were convicted, and three cases are pending.) School superintendent Raymond Lusk notes that teachers had complained of students showing up on Monday mornings with drug and alcohol hangovers. "Our staff felt like there was a severe problem," he says. Incoming student council president Jeffrey Hunter, 17, who supports the policy, says he learned about drugs in Lockney schools "pretty much as soon as I got into sixth grade. That's when it starts."

Lockney adopted its policy—modeled after one in Sundown, 76 miles away—in November. All students and staff would be tested during the first round; thereafter 10 percent of the school population would undergo tests monthly. "I'm sure there's drugs in Lockney," says Tannahill. "But I don't think there's enough to warrant what they're trying to do."

Before January the soft-spoken Tannahill was not exactly known as a rabble rouser. The youngest of three children born to a Lockney farmer and his homemaker wife, he tried farming on his own but later hired on as a hand for another local farmer, moving to the small rented house he shares with Traci—a clerk at a nearby prison—and their sons. Neighbors have offered little support for their stance. "If either one of my children were doing drugs, I'd want them to get help," says Pat Garza, 36, mother of two teenagers. "I don't see what the big deal is." Other Lockney residents have been harsher: Someone shot Ranger, the Tannahills' boxer, with a paint ball, and a note was left on their door that said, "You're messing with our kids." Letters to the local paper have suggested the Tannahills relocate. "You should not have to pack your bags," says Traci, "just because you disagree."

Waiting for a U.S. district judge to hear his case, Larry Tannahill isn't going anywhere. "What I'm doing is my birthright," he says. "They have the right to try to have this policy, and I have the right to try to stop it, because I'm concerned for my kids."

Thomas Fields-Meyer
Michael Haederle in Lockney

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