Pubdate: Thu, 11 Dec 2008
Source: Houston Chronicle (TX)
Copyright: 2008 Houston Chronicle Publishing Company Division, Hearst
Author: Ericka Mellon
Bookmark: (Drug Testing)


Recent Arrests Have Some Calling On HISD, Others To Revisit Stance On
Pre-Employment Screening

For many job applicants, whether the work involves driving trucks or
answering phones, passing a drug test is a given.

That's not the case for Texas public school teachers.

The state does not require teachers to take drug tests before being
hired, and local school districts aren't mandating the tests on their

Officials with several districts - including the Houston Independent
School District, San Antonio ISD and Alief ISD - cited cost as one
major reason they skip pre-employment drug screens for teachers. But
with the recent drug arrests of more than a dozen HISD employees, some
advocates are calling on districts to revisit their hiring practices.

"School teachers - next to parents, and in some cases, above parents -
are the strongest role model in a child's life," said Calvina Fay,
executive director of the Drug Free America Foundation. "If there's
ever an employee that we should be looking that they're drug free, it
should be teachers."

State Rep. Rob Eissler, who chairs the House Public Education
Committee, said he would support studying mandatory drug screening for
teaching applicants. More than 300,000 teachers currently work in the
state's public schools.

"It's something we should look at," said Eissler, R-The Woodlands.
"Let's see what the testimony turns up and what's the practicality.
You certainly want to protect the children. That's our top priority."

Bus drivers tested

Under federal law, school districts already have to conduct
pre-employment and random drug tests of bus drivers. Some local
districts, including HISD, also have policies allowing drug testing of
teachers and other employees during the school year if they suspect

Earlier this week, HISD Superintendent Abelardo Saavedra announced
plans to crack down on employees with drugs. He did not go so far as
requiring drug tests for teachers, but the district plans to dispatch
drug-sniffing dogs to all 300 or so schools to search employee parking

Saavedra's move follows the arrests of at least 15 HISD employees,
mostly teachers, accused of having marijuana or undocumented
prescription drugs in their cars at school.

Elneita Hutchins-Taylor, HISD's general counsel, said the district
administration hasn't considered mandatory drug tests for teaching
applicants at this point.

"We just have not found it necessary to do that," she said, noting
that the district already conducts criminal background checks on all
job applicants plus annual checks on current employees. "There would
certainly be a lot of cost associated with that."

The drug tests for bus drivers cost HISD up to $28 each. If the
district were to test the 1,500 or so new teachers it hires a year,
the price tag would be $42,000. Testing all 28,000 current employees
would cost $784,000.

HISD school board president Harvin Moore said he isn't opposed to
pre-employment drug tests for teachers, though he hadn't studied the

"I certainly think teachers should be clean from illegal drugs," he
said, "and I don't have any problem with a drug test being
administered prior to hire if it's legal."

Officials with the Texas Education Agency, which oversees public
schools, said they could find no state law prohibiting drug testing of
teaching applicants. A new state law mandating fingerprinting and
national background checks of most public school employees doesn't
address the issue either.

In light of the problems in HISD, Alief school board president Sarah
Winkler said she would consider initiating a discussion in her
district about expanding drug screens to teaching applicants.

"I think most of our teachers feel it's an important enough issue that
they would be willing to do it pre-employment," said Winkler,
president-elect of the Texas Association of School Boards. "Random
testing, I think there would be privacy issues. I don't know I'd want
to go there."

Gayle Fallon, president of the Houston Federation of Teachers in HISD,
said she isn't overly concerned about drug tests for applicants. "Our
concern is the current employees."

But Chuck Robinson, who runs the Congress of Houston Teachers, said he
doubted the tests would be worth the cost. "That's just a snapshot in
time. Someone could pass something like that and then go back to their
bad habits."

City, county require it

The city and Harris County government both require applicants to pass
drug tests before they're hired for any job.

"We are known as an employer with a tough drug policy, so it
eliminates a lot of people from even applying," said Candy Clarke
Aldridge, acting human resources director for the city, which has
about 22,000 employees. In 2008, she said, of all the drug tests
conducted on city applicants and employees, 1.65 percent came back
positive for drugs.

About 55 percent of U.S. companies drug-test job applicants, according
to the most recent survey from the American Management

Steve Werner, a professor of management at the University of Houston's
Bauer College of Business, said the issue of drug-testing teachers is

"Certainly you could make the argument, especially if you find there's
a problem, that drug testing would be warranted," he said. "On the
other hand, it is a professional occupation, and the drug testing
itself - the most common method is a urinalysis - is invasive; it's
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