ACLU will sue to halt teacher drug testing
STORY SUMMARY »
A controversial plan to test public school teachers for drugs is headed to court before it even starts.
American Civil Liberties Union officials said yesterday that they plan to file a lawsuit against the state "soon" to oppose a program they claim will violate privacy rights, cost taxpayers too much money and do little to curb drug use.
State Attorney General Mark Bennett defended the plan, noting it received the signatures of a majority of public school teachers who voted earlier this year to ratify a two-year contract.
But the ACLU claims teachers have been complaining they felt forced to vote on the contract to get 4 percent pay raises in the current and next school years. The state made random and reasonable-suspicion drug testing a non-negotiable item of the contract.
"Unfortunately, public school employees were put in the unfair position of accepting random drug testing in order to earn a living wage," said ACLU Hawaii Executive Director Vanessa Chong. "The policy has been accepted, and we are now hearing from individuals who are concerned."
Nationally, less than 10 percent of school districts test teachers for drugs, said Joan Husted, executive director of the Hawaii State Teachers Association.
The union represents about 13,000 public school teachers who would be subject to drug testing starting June 30.
FULL STORY »
The American Civil Liberties Union of Hawaii wants to prevent the state from testing public school teachers for drugs next school year, charging that the program would be ineffective and costly and would violate privacy rights.
ACLU officials say they will soon file a lawsuit against the state on behalf of teachers who contend they were forced to agree to random and reasonable-suspicion drug testing to get a pay hike under a new two-year contract signed in the spring.
"The state is now in a dubious position of being the first state ever to subject its public-educational force to a blanket policy of random drug testing," said Vanessa Chong, ACLU of Hawaii executive director. "It unfairly violates the rights of thousands of law-abiding public school employees while doing little to protect anyone."
State Attorney General Mark Bennett defended the program set to begin June 30, arguing it "violates neither state law nor federal law."
"We will vigorously defend it," he said. "We believe that the state and the teachers union have an absolute right to sign this type of a contract."
The state made drug testing of teachers a non-negotiable demand during talks with the Hawaii State Teachers Association, which represents about 13,000 teachers. Though the program was met with resistance by some, 61.3 percent of more than 8,000 union members voted in May to ratify a contract giving them 4 percent raises in the current and next school years.
Plans for the drug testing policy came in the wake of six drug-related arrests of Department of Education employees in a six-month period, beginning in March 2006 when a Leilehua High School teacher was arrested for dealing crystal methamphetamine.
The incidents prompted legislators to introduced a bill that, had it passed, would have expanded drug testing to all public school employees who work close to children if there was reasonable suspicion they were intoxicated.
The Education Department, which is also considering a drug-sniffing dog program, conducts drug tests only of bus drivers, some physical therapists and auto mechanics instructors.
The ACLU decided to challenge the drug testing of teachers to support several employees upset about it, Chong said. The ACLU compiled a team of legal experts who will, starting Sept. 27, hold meetings on Maui, Kauai, Oahu and the Big Island.
Several teachers complained about the state's firm position to object to any contract unless it carried a drug testing provision, said HSTA Executive Director Joan Husted.
"There are teachers who believe they were blackmailed," she said, "but we also heard from teachers who believe they have an obligation to ensure their schools are drug-free."
Husted said the union has developed guidelines to test teachers based on reasonable suspicion and is working on the random portion.
The union and education officials will meet formally for the first time next month to work out details of the program, said Greg Knudsen, Department of Education spokesman.
Randall Myers, who teaches sixth-graders at Sunset Beach Elementary, said the state rushed to judgment when it decided a drug testing program was needed to curb substance use on campuses.
"I think they made a huge leap to assuming that it is a generalized problem in the schools," Myers said.