Everyone offered a public school teaching job in one Tennessee county can be required to take a drug test, following the Supreme Court’s rejection of a challenge by teachers who say the tests violate their rights.

The justices’ action, taken without comment Oct. 4, set no legal precedent but likely will add fuel to the national debate over school drug testing and could encourage other districts to enact similar policies. The teachers’ appeal was one of hundreds turned down by the court as it opened its 1999-2000 term.

“If our children are not important enough and their safety and educational progress are not important enough to justify this limited drug testing, I don’t know what would be,” said Richard T. Beeler, attorney for the Knox County Board of Education, which adopted the drug-testing program in 1994.

The teachers contended the tests amount to an unreasonable search under the Constitution’s Fourth Amendment if officials do not suspect the tested individual of using drugs.

The Knox County policy requires everyone offered a job considered “safety sensitive” to undergo urinalysis drug testing. Jobs considered safety sensitive include teachers, principals and assistant principals, teacher aides, school secretaries, and bus drivers.

The policy was challenged in federal court by the Knox County Education Association, an organization of teachers, principals, and other school employees.

A federal judge threw out the suspicionless testing requirement after finding there was no documented evidence of a drug abuse problem among teachers.

The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed that ruling in September 1998. The appeals court said even without evidence of a drug problem among teachers, drug testing is justified by the “unique role” teachers play in children’s lives.

Teachers and principals are “front-line observers in providing for a safe school environment,” the appeals court said.

The Knox County schools’ director of human resources, Betty Sue Sparks, said 1,064 people have been tested since last November. Fewer than 10 tested positive for drug use, and none of them were hired, she said.

In past rulings, the Supreme Court has said the government can require drug testing of customs agents and railroad employees involved in serious accidents. The justices also have let public schools require student athletes to undergo drug testing.

But in 1997, the justices ruled that states cannot force political candidates to take drug tests merely to demonstrate the government’s commitment to the war on drugs.

The Knox County teachers’ appeal said the drug testing policy was so broad that even taking cough syrup could lead to a positive result.

The school board’s lawyers argued that evidence of drug use by teachers is not necessary to justify a drug-testing plan. Teachers must stay alert to ensure student safety, they said.

The Supreme Court’s action could make it easier for metropolitan Nashville schools to move ahead in their plans to require drug testing of such applicants, said Graciela Escobedo, assistant superintendent for human resources.

Metro Nashville schools have pushed to test teachers when they are hired, transferred, promoted, involved in a serious traffic accident, or suspected of using drugs. Metro schools now require only bus drivers to take drug tests when applying for jobs, Escobedo said.

The Supreme Court case is Knox County Education Association vs. Knox County Board of Education, 98-1799.

Links:

United States Supreme Court, Supreme Court Building, Washington DC 20543; phone (202) 479 3000.

Knox County Schools, P.O. Box 2188, Knoxville, TN 37901-2188; phone (423) 594-1800, web http://www.korrnet. org/kcschool. n