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Drug-Test Policy Targets Workers In Indian Schools

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Washington--Virtually all employees of federally operated Indian schools--including teachers, administrators, school-bus drivers, and even aides--would be subject to random drug testing under a new policy set by the Department of the Interior.

The department's November announcement of the program was pursuant to a 1987 executive order by President Reagan requiring all Cabinet agencies to develop drug-test programs for their employees. Only the Interior and Defense Department plans would affect blocs of school personnel.

"Drug usage would make it difficult for these people to function properly and there is a great danger that students would be more susceptible to use of drugs," the Interior Department contends in a document justifying the inclusion of approximately 3,000 teachers and guidance counselors in the testing pool.

"Long before drug use becomes manifest in a teacher's erratic classroom performance, that teacher's function as a role model and transmitter of societal values is likely to have been seriously compromised," the document says.

The department also argues that teachers must not "facilitate" drug problems that are "rampant" on some Indian reservations.

According to a department spokesman, Alan Levitt, the testing policy is to go into effect early in 1989. About 15 percent of the employees in the testing pool would be chosen at random each year for tests, Mr. Levitt said.

Besides teachers and administrators at the 111 schools operated by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the pool includes about 500 dormitory attendants and 100 bus drivers.

Employees at some of the 70 bia-funded schools that are run by tribes under contract, rather than by the agency, will also be included.

Carl Shaw, a bia spokesman, said testing in that group would depend on whether the specifics of the contract made school workers employees of the federal government or of the contracting tribe.

During the first year, only employees in the department's Washington and Denver offices are to be tested, giving current school employees a reprieve. All new job applicants, however, are also to be tested.

Officials of the National Federation of Federal Employees, which represents about 40 percent of the educators employed by the bia as well as other Interior Department employees, said the union would almost certainly ask a federal court to forbid the testing.

"It's a slap in the face to the education community," said Robert Keener, president of the union's bia Council and a teacher at the Chemawa Indian School in Salem, Ore. "It is rare for teachers to use drugs."

"Testing airline pilots or people4who are handling dangerous explosives may be one thing, but testing a kindergarten teacher doesn't seem to have the same critical need," Mr. Keener said.

Despite their responsibility for children's safety, Mr. Keener said he also opposed random or blanket testing of bus drivers. Unless there is cause to believe an individual is on drugs, testing is an invasion of privacy and an unconstitutional search, he argued.

"The really sad thing is that it's almost totally unnecessary and it's going to cause a dimunition of services to the Indian community because it's going to cost a lot of money," Mr. Keener said.

The nffe is already party to ongoing suits challenging an Army plan to test civilian employees and more broadly questioning the constitutionality of the Presidential order calling on agencies to begin testing.

Several agencies that have tried to implement testing plans have been stymied at least temporarily by such legal maneuvers.

The Army's plan, for example, was struck down by a district court and an appeal is pending. A Justice Department plan is also on hold pending appeal.

The first of these cases to reach the U.S. Supreme Court were recently heard by the Justices. (See Education Week, November 9, 1988.) In one case, a plan to test transportation workers had been voided by an appellate court, while the other8challenged plan, involving Customs Service employees, had been upheld.

A case involving District of Columbia school-bus drivers is also pending before the High Court.

If the Justices decide that drug testing is permissible in some circumstances and "apply a balancing test between employee rights and the public interest," much litigation will follow in which different categories of workers protest their inclusion in testing pools, said Gwen Gregory, deputy general counsel for the National School Boards Association.

Because the government is certain to appeal any adverse decision, the Interior Department case might be the first to reach the Supreme Court on the issue of whether testing teachers is justifiable, she said.

This is not the first time the Reagan Administration has advocated testing educators for drug use, however.

The Interior Department's rationale for the policy echoes arguments made by Justice Department officials in a friend-of-the-court brief backing a Long Island school district's plan to test probationary teachers against a challenge by the local teachers' union.

"Drug testing has been upheld when applied to transportation workers and others whose jobs have a direct effect on public safety, and it seems to me almost an insult to teachers to maintain that their jobs are any less important," former Attorney General Edwin Meese 3rd said in announcing the Administration's intervention in the case.

In arguing that drug-free status is a reasonable job requirement for teachers, Justice discussed teachers' "role model" function in terms almost identical to those used by Interior.

New York State's highest court ruled last year that the Patchogue-Medford school district could not require teachers to submit to testing unless it had "reasonable suspicion" that they used drugs. The district did not appeal further, but instead implemented a plan under which only job applicants would be tested. (See Education Week, Oct. 7, 1987.)

In addition, the Administration last spring proposed random testing for another group of educators who are employed by the federal government--those who work at overseas schools for the children of Defense Department employees.

They were included in the testing pool when the Defense Department announced its plan, and the affiliates of both major teachers' unions that represent overseas members asked federal courts to block the plan.

Spokesmen for the Overseas Education Association and Overseas Federation of Teachers said the suits were withdrawn this past summer after the department agreed to give the unions an additional 30 days' notice on top of the 60 days required by government regulations before any testing begins. That would give the unions time to reinstate their legal actions.

"We were told they did not have the ability or the funds to carry out such a large drug-testing program," added Sandra Vickstrom, a spokesman for the oea

Both national unions have taken strong positions against blanket or random drug testing of teachers, arguing that it is unnecessary and violates their constitutional rights.

Indian educators contacted last week reacted cautiously to the Interior Department plan, saying that they were not familiar with the details. Both the National Advisory Council on Indian Education and the board of directors of the National Indian Education Association plan to discuss the issue at upcoming meetings.

"I personally feel, as the superintendent of a school system, that people like bus drivers who are involved with the safety of people should be subject to [testing]," said Ed Parisian, president of the niea and superintendent of the Rocky Boy Schools in Montana.

"I think quality people are alcohol- and drug-free," Mr. Parisian said, adding that "we have to get rid of the alcohol and drug problem we have in Indian communities."

On the other hand, he said, "I'm sure the people involved will feel it's an invasion of their privacy, and I can understand that."

"Whether they use drugs or not, it will be a detriment to their wanting to take a job" in an Indian school, Mr. Parisian added, speculating that the policy might make it even harder to recruit teachers for often-isolated posts.

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