After several months of discussion, the Kanawha County (Charleston), West Virginia, school board voted 4-1 in October to go ahead with a plan to randomly drug test teachers and other school district employees. The new policy expands an existing policy that provides for drug testing of teachers upon suspicion of drug use. The move came despite repeated warnings that it would result in a long and costly legal battle with teachers and civil libertarians.
"It's hard to get firm data on this," said Lisa Soronen of the National School Board Association. "We don't have much more than anecdotal information, but my sense is that teacher drug testing is an issue that is more often considered than followed through on because cost, constitutional challenges, and political pressure not to do it make in undesirable for many school boards."
The association takes no position on teacher drug testing, said Soronen. "We have not taken specific positions on either student or teacher drug testing," she explained. "Our mantra is one of local control. Our view is not that school districts should do this, but that they should make the decisions themselves. If they want to do it, they should be able to."
Although both West Virginia courts and the US Supreme Court have held that government workers cannot be forced to participate in suspicionless random drug testing programs unless they are working in "safety sensitive" positions, the Kanawha school board is hoping to get around those rulings by defining virtually all school jobs as "safety sensitive."
"I guess there's nothing more safety sensitive than someone who has my child all day long," school board president and mother Becky Jordon told the Charleston Daily Mail late last month.
In local press articles, all four board members who voted for random drug testing cited community pressure, despite little evidence of drug use among district employees. That pressure was in part the result of three highly publicized but statistically insignificant incidents involving drugs and school employees in recent years. In one case, an elementary school teacher was arrested for cocaine possession, but was later acquitted and returned to work. In another case, there are allegations that a librarian had a relationship with two male students that included drug use. In a third case, an elementary school teacher was arrested after police found methamphetamine making materials in his home.
But some board members also suggested they hoped they could set legal precedent in expanding the scope of drug testing. "As a board member elected by the public, with the constituents I could not find any reason why I should not at least respond to the will of the people to pursue something I was not totally convinced had been eliminated as totally unconstitutional," board member Bill Raglin told the Daily Mail. "I'm not going to go against the ruling of the courts, but I want to hear what the courts have to say," he said. "And I'm not willing to accept what I am told by the ACLU lawyer or anyone else because it's an opinion they have -- it's not a court ruling."
Now, the warnings of legal challenges have come true. On November 26, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) West Virginia affiliate filed suit in Kanawha County District Court seeking to block the program from being implemented. Last week, the West Virginia Education Association (WVEA) and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) joined the fray, filing a second district court lawsuit seeking to block the program before it goes into effect on January 1.
"The Board left us no choice but to file the suit once they decided to implement a policy that risks student safety and violates the constitutional rights of its employees," said AFT-Kanawha chapter head Fred Albert. "The policy violates the constitutionally protected privacy rights of those school employees who will be randomly screened and who are not engaged in safety sensitive positions. The policy, in effect, places all teachers under suspicion; and this is both morally and legally wrong."
"The proposed random drug testing of public school employees is an affront to our fundamental rights and a senseless waste of scarce taxpayer dollars that will not increase student safety," said Adam Wolf, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union. "Public servants should not be required to surrender their constitutional rights as a condition of serving their community."
The AFT-Kanawha's Albert told the Chronicle Wednesday that while the issue of employee drug use probably drove the board to its decision, there was really very little of substance to it. "We had a case three years ago of an administrator who was caught with a substance, but he was cleared in a court of law and reinstated," Albert said. "There have been two other cases, but neither one was people showing up impaired by drugs. I think this was the primary factor in the board's decision."
Albert was quick to point out that while his organization is fighting the new policy, that doesn't mean it supports dope-snorting teachers. "My union does not and has never advocated for teachers or any other school employee using drugs or being impaired and putting children in harm's way," he said. "There is a policy in place, approved by the board about a year ago, that anyone who appeared to be impaired on the job should be tested on suspicion. We don't have any problem with that. But we don't feel that the rest of us who don't use illegal drugs should be considered guilty and have to prove our innocence."
Now it will be up to the courts to decide. And the Kanawha School Board is preparing to spend hundreds of thousands of scarce education dollars to find out. Albert and the teachers think that money, and the estimated $40,000 a year to implement the random drug testing program, could be better spent actually educating students.