Published Online: January 29, 1997

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Up In Smoke

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The courts have not been sympathetic to constitutional objections to drug testing such as those Hearn raised.

But Savannah as a whole was sharply divided over Hearn and her stand. Superintendent Russo had recommended to the board that it fire Hearn, and, in an editorial published a few days before the hearing, the Morning News had agreed. The courts, the paper noted, have not been sympathetic to constitutional objections to drug testing such as those Hearn raised. (See the accompanying story, "Law and Order.") The teacher might be standing up for what she believes in, it said, but legally "she doesn't have a leg to stand on."

And though Sherry counted many colleagues among her supporters, Savannah's teaching corps did not exactly rally to her side. "People are very fond of Sherry, and everybody's saddened by what happened," says Kris Rawlins, a counselor at Groves High School and a teacher representative to the board of education. "But I do know that practically everybody in the school system supports the drug-free workplace policy."

Even at Windsor, the staff was split as to whether Hearn's refusal to take the drug test was an act of courage or simply dumb defiance. "A component of the faculty feels like, 'This is your boss. When your boss tells you to take the drug test, you do it,'" Anita Varner says. "Another component of the faculty says, 'No, this is a constitutional-rights issue.'"

When the hearing opened at 8 a.m., two members of the board immediately recused themselves from the proceedings. In affidavits filed with the board, Hearn's supporters had testified that the two had strongly suggested that their minds were essentially made up against the teacher; one of them allegedly said, "I know that nobody would throw away 25 years [of teaching], or whatever it is, for something this unimportant unless they had something to hide." (Both members denied that they had prejudged Hearn before the hearing.)

Police testimony made it clear that the car's interior was searched before Hearn was contacted—a violation of policy No. 766.

Over the next 16 hours, more than 20 witnesses testified before the board. Police told how the drug dog had alerted them to the drug in Hearn's car and how they ran a field test to confirm that it was marijuana. But their testimony made it clear that the car's interior was searched before Hearn was contacted--a violation of policy No. 766, which states that school staff member's personal belongings, including their cars, could be searched "only with the employee's consent."

Superintendent Russo admitted that the officers breached policy: "We acknowledge the fact that, to a large degree, that particular procedure was not followed." But he waved off its importance. What was paramount, he argued, was the fact that Hearn's actions threatened the "integrity" of the district's drug policy. Russo could have opted to reprimand Hearn or extend her suspension, but instead he had recommended termination, the maximum penalty, or "capital punishment" as her lawyers referred to it. "There is no member of the staff--[whether] a student, a teacher, an employee--that can be held above the policies of the board of education," Russo testified.

Witnesses called on behalf of Hearn spoke of her teaching brilliance and aired their concerns about the drug searches and the testing policy. A Windsor teacher testified that police had treated minority students with more suspicion than white students. A student told how she feared that her classmates might hide their drug stash in her book bag when police searched the classrooms--words that echoed Hearn's argument that a student could have stashed the joint in her unlocked car. "The people at school who use drugs," the student testified, "they're smart enough to get rid of them when they hear that we're going to have a drug search."

Evidence also bolstered Hearn's claims that she was a straight arrow. A former student testified that after she graduated, Hearn had tracked her down when rumors circulated about her running with a fast crowd. Fighting back tears, the girl described how her former teacher had preached to her the dangers of messing with drugs.

Moreover, Hearn's lawyers entered as evidence a medical report that Hearn tested negative for drugs on April 5, about 30 hours after the marijuana was found in her car. Unable to reach her lawyer on April 4, Hearn had talked to two attorneys--a criminal specialist and a civil rights lawyer--and both recommended that she take a drug test. Proof of her contention that she was drug-free might help in her bid to win back her job, the lawyers told her. Hearn had reluctantly agreed.

But board members greeted much of this evidence with skepticism. Hearn might now object to the search of her car, but her behavior that day contradicted her principled stand based on the Constitution. She did, after all, agree to open her trunk for police. Also, her drug test was not conducted under police supervision, which made its result questionable.

The hearing to this point had been rancorous—several students had cried under blunt questioning from board members.

As the board hearing moved into the evening, Hearn's turn to testify finally came. The hearing to this point had been rancorous--several students had cried under blunt questioning from board members. Hearn was exhausted, and, true to form, she didn't sugarcoat any of her comments. At one point, when board member William Knight suggested that she could have flushed her body of any trace of marijuana before her drug test and talked about fluid levels in blood, she said, "I don't know what you're talking about."

"Neither do I, really," Knight returned.

"Then maybe we should both shut up," Hearn replied sharply.

In the month since her suspension, Hearn had declined to talk to reporters about her case. Now, she spoke in her own defense for the first time. She reiterated her constitutional objections to the drug test and searches, but she knew the board did not find that relevant. "There is only one thing I know about whatever it was that was found in my car," she said, "and that is that it was not mine."

What infuriated her, she told the board, was that until that very moment, nobody from the central office had asked for her side of the story. The discovery of the marijuana that day had set off a mad scramble to find the exact wording of the district's drug policy. Since then, district officials had followed procedure to the letter, letting it dictate Hearn's fall from grace. The personnel director had phoned Hearn once, but their brief conversation led the suspended teacher to believe that she merely wanted to discuss insurance and other housekeeping matters.


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