Published Online: January 29, 1997

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Law And Order

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Although Sherry Hearn argues that Savannah's anti-drug tactics are unconstitutional, the courts have by and large upheld law-and-order strategies in the schools.

In a pivotal 1985 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in New Jersey v. T.L.O. that the state's responsibility to make schools safe is so critical that authorities can search students when there are "reasonable grounds" to suspect a violation of law or school policy. A decade later, the court in Veronia School District v. Acton upheld the constitutionality of drug testing student athletes, a decision that reaffirmed the court's view that students do not holdthe same Fourth Amendment rights as adult citizens. "In general, searches have to meet a lesser standard, a 'reasonable suspicion' standard rather than a 'probable cause' standard," says Naomi Gittins, a staff attorney with the National School Boards Association.

Less clear is the constitutionality of testing teachers for drugs. Courts have consistently ruled against random testing of public employees, but testing when there is reasonable suspicion of drug use has been upheld. The Supreme Court has never directly ruled on the issue, but it has suspended the Fourth Amendment protections of public employees, chiefly railroad workers, whose job performance could affect public safety.

Still, Hearn and her lawyers argue their case is a strong one. The courts have upheld random searches that target segments of a school's enrollment, but they have not ruled on broad random searches. Nor have the courts approved searches or drug testing that are designed as proactive measures. Also, Hearn argues that the district's definition of reasonable suspicion for drug testing employees is vague and too broadly written to pass muster with the courts.

"If the only way that my child can be safe is to be searched," Hearn argues, "then maybe we need to move to Australia. Freedom is risky. And when a federal judge or a state superior judge or somebody that knows more about the Constitution and the law than I do tells me I'm wrong, then I'll believe it. I won't be happy. But I'll accept it."

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