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Quit doomed effort to impose drug tests on public teachers


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POSTED: Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Bogged down by budget constraints and the snail's pace of labor litigation, random drug testing of Hawaii public school teachers has been set aside since being injected into the teachers' contract in 2007. The two-year contract runs out in June, effectively aborting the plan. The state should turn its effort toward increasing awareness of drugs in schools and urging staff and students to report suspicious behavior.

Negotiators for the Hawaii State Teachers Association reluctantly agreed to the random testing, submitted late in the contract talks by the Lingle administration as a non-negotiable item, in the wake of a flurry of drug arrests of teachers and custodians two years ago. The contract was approved by 61 percent of the teachers who voted, compared to a 93 percent vote for ratification of the previous contract.

The teachers union contested the contract provision, and the state complained to the Hawaii Labor Relations Board. The union asked the board to declare the random testing unconstitutional and is appealing the board's rejection to a state circuit judge.

Meanwhile, Gov. Linda Lingle refused to provide $500,000 for the testing, and the Board of Education declined to pay for it with education money. The American Civil Liberties Union stood poised to intervene if the state moved to implement the drug testing.

Private companies are allowed to conduct random drug testing of employees, but the constitutional right of people, including public employees, to be protected from government-imposed tests is at issue. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1989 that suspicionless testing was appropriate for railroad employees involved in accidents or federal customs employees engaged in drug enforcement or who carried guns or handled classified materials.

The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld drug testing of teachers in Knox County, Ky. The Supreme Court declined to review the ruling, so other court circuits, including the 9th, which includes Hawaii, are not bound by the Kentucky ruling. The 9th Circuit, reputed to be the nation's most liberal, has not been presented with such a case.

Hawaii's teachers union acknowledges that random testing should be allowed of certain teachers, such as those who have work-related drug convictions and who carry firearms. Drug testing of teachers who are reasonably suspected of drug use is allowed by the state and U.S. constitutions.

Under the current state budget shortfall, the Lingle administration can hardly afford to go forward with a legal battle that, as the June contract expiration date approaches, would be of little if any consequence. It should carve out a program for random testing of employees in “;safety sensitive”; positions and find out how other schools in the nation are keeping an eye out for drug abuse among their staffs.