Recent arrests warrant random drug tests of teachers
Public school teachers will vote tomorrow on a contract that requires random drug testing.
RESPONDING to a flurry of arrests of teachers and custodians accused of illegal drug activity, the Hawaii State Teachers Association leadership has acted responsibly, although reluctantly, in accepting drug tests as part of its tentative labor contract
with the state. The proposal appears to be based on programs operated in other states.
The Legislature is considering a bill that essentially would direct the Department of Education to set up a program for testing all of its employees. Achieving such a program by collective bargaining instead of by statute is preferable, insulating the policy from potential court challenges.
The agreement should be ratified tomorrow by the rank and file. It provides that the teachers union and state are to "establish a reasonable suspicion and random Drug And Alcohol Testing procedures" for the state's 13,000 teachers. The program is to be implemented by the end of the next school year. The department now tests bus drivers, physical therapists who work with deaf and blind students, and a few auto mechanics instructors, according to a spokesman.
The authority of the state to engage in drug testing of public employees prompted by "reasonable suspicion" that drug laws have been violated has been undisputed. Teachers and other school staffers should undergo training in how to look for signs of drug use.
Courts in recent years also have approved random testing in some circumstances. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1989 that such suspicionless testing was appropriate for railroad employees involved in accidents or suspected of drug use and to federal customs employees who engaged in drug enforcement, carried guns or handled classified materials.
The court ruled that those circumstances created "special needs" for drug testing because the jobs involved "the discharge of duties fraught with risks of injury to others." The "special needs" exemption from constitutional protection against unreasonable searches has been applied to school employees because of the need to maintain school safety.
However, a state might provide greater protection against searches than that granted by the U.S. Supreme Court. A 1998 federal appeals court ruling struck down random testing of teachers in New Orleans, asserting that "special needs must rest on demonstrated realities."
Citing the New Orleans case, the American Civil Liberties Union challenged a proposal in a West Virginia county school board to conduct drug tests on most of its employees. The proposal, which arose after an elementary school principal was arrested for a suspected drug offense last fall, was narrowly rejected by the school board last week.
The drug arrests of four public school teachers and two custodians this school year justify the establishment of reasonable testing procedures in Hawaii.
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