Pubdate: Wed, 03 Jun 2009
Source: Asheville Citizen-Times (NC)
Copyright: 2009 Asheville Citizen-Times
Author: Jordan Schrader
Bookmark: (Drug Testing)


Court: Teachers' Rights Violated

The Graham County school board violated employees' constitutional 
rights by deciding to subject them to random tests for drugs and 
alcohol, the state Court of Appeals ruled Tuesday.

The ruling could discourage other boards from following the lead of 
the tiny school system of 1,200 students in the far-western 
mountains. Reversing an order by Superior Court Judge James U. Downs, 
the appeals court ruled the policy violates the North Carolina 
constitution's prohibitions on unreasonable searches.

"Constitutional rights are not lightly cast aside," Judge Linda 
Stephens wrote for a unanimous three-judge panel.

Said Stephens quoting a 2008 decision: "We should recall that the 
cherished liberties enjoyed in our brief historical moment have been 
inherited by this generation only because they have been nurtured and 
protected by earlier generations of Americans so driven in their 
pursuit of liberty that life itself was not too great a cost to 
purchase liberty for themselves and their posterity." Graham County 
Schools could appeal to the state Supreme Court. The school board met 
Tuesday morning but made no decision, attorney Dean Shatley said. A 
decision on whether to appeal could come in a week or two, he said. 
The school board in 2006 approved random testing for its 250 
teachers, staff and administrators, saying it would be unsafe for 
them to interact with students while under the influence.

The policy never took effect, put on hold after the N.C. Association 
of Educators sued on behalf of a Robbinsville High School Spanish 
teacher, Susan Jones.

The board's makeup has changed since then. "There are several 
different board members, so I think they have to take that into 
consideration -- kind of like they're making the decision for the 
first time, for them," Shatley said.

The district also will find out if a trust set up by the state's 
school boards will continue to cover all legal fees.

Both sides agree the district's three schools in Robbinsville are the 
kind of places where everyone knows everyone else.

No evidence of drugs

Judges said the board didn't show evidence of a drug problem among 
school employees that would justify changing the former policy, which 
mandated drug testing upon hiring and upon suspicion.

Over more than a decade, just one employee had been tested because of 
suspicion. And school officials acknowledged in testimony that no 
child had been harmed by educators thought to be under the influence. 
Lawyers for the board, though, argued educators have safety-sensitive 
jobs akin to an airport maintenance mechanic whom the North Carolina 
courts ruled could be randomly tested.

Stephens, though, wrote that "there is absolutely no evidence in the 
record which in any way equates the safety concerns inherent in the 
driving of a motor vehicle on the apron of an airport's flight area 
with the safety concerns inherent in the job duties of any board 
employee." Judge James Wynn and Chief Judge John C. Martin joined in 
her opinion. If the ruling stands, any other school systems looking 
to do random drug testing will have to give good reason.

"They really have to show that they don't have any alternative," said 
Luke Largess, attorney for the teachers.

Former school board chairman Mitch Colvard, the policy's main backer 
whom voters have since replaced, hopes the board will appeal. "It's a 
sad day when you have to get tested to work at a fast food 
restaurant," Colvard said, "... but you can go to school and 
influence our children, our future, and not be tested."
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