Published Online: January 29, 1997


Up In Smoke

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The board discussed the police violation of the district policy, but in the end, most members concluded that it did not matter.

"Somebody should have gotten in touch with me and said, 'What happened?'" Hearn told the board. "'Let's sit down and talk about this and see exactly what happened and exactly what we feel like we're going to need to do here.'"

Russo recommended termination without talking to her once, Hearn said, even though he knew her and had worked with her as Teacher of the Year. "I really would have believed that Dr. Russo would have just picked up the phone and called me and said, 'Sherry, what is going on? Why are you doing this? Are you crazy?'"

In his closing arguments, Leamon Holliday, the attorney for the board, dismissed as inconsequential most of Hearn's objections. The test that she took on April 5 was meaningless, he said. Drugs could have washed clean of her system by then. And besides, she had signed a contract in which she agreed to abide by district policies. Her refusal to take the drug test was "naked insubordination," he said. "You can gloss over it with all these things about 'I believe this' and 'I can't face my students,' but that's what we're really talking about."

Holliday did give the board an opening to overrule Russo and hand down a lesser punishment. Noting the police officers' violation of district policy regarding searches, he said, "I think that's something you ought to consider, not because it's illegal, not because it violates some constitutional mandate, but just because it's fair play. If we're going to set a standard for our teachers that we expect [them] to uphold, I think we're obligated to play by the rules."

The board disagreed. At about midnight, 16 hours after the hearing opened, the six board members returned from a half-hour closed-door session and announced they had voted 5 to 1 to terminate Hearn. The no vote was cast by John Matthews, her friend and the board member to whom she had complained about the drug policy. The board discussed the police violation of the district policy regarding searches of teachers' personal belongings, says Karen Matthews, the board's president. But in the end, most members concluded that it did not matter. "It came down to the board feeling very strongly about our drug-free workplace policy," the board president says. "If an employee faced a reasonable suspicion of drug use and was allowed to say, 'I'm not taking the test,' we would never be able to enforce the policy again."

After her dismissal, she held class at her home for a number of her advanced-placement American history students.

Hearn's dismissal troubled many of the kids and staff at Windsor. They knew Hearn had fought to keep her classroom a sanctuary from downtown and its policies; now, in a cruel irony, policy had locked her out of her own classroom. "There are students for whom this may be a life-changing event," Anita Varner says. "Some of them have had an awful difficult time coming to terms with what happened."

At graduation last spring, senior class leaders departed from their prepared speeches--speeches that had been previewed by school officials--and hailed Hearn to thunderous applause. Says Kim Stover, "She always told us, 'You have to stand up for what you believe in. You have to voice your opinion. You have to say, This is my right.' And when the chips were down, that's what she did."

Some observers outside Savannah agree. In May, an editorial in the Atlanta Journal and Constitution said Hearn was wrongly fired and argued that students won't respect authority "when those in authority treat everyone as if they were criminals." And last month, the Georgia chapter of the ACLU honored the teacher with its Civil Liberties Award.

Hearn's stand may go for naught, however. Neither board President Karen Matthews nor Superintendent Russo plans to revisit the drug-free workplace policy. "There is not a more serious problem right now in this country than the abuse of alcohol and drugs," Russo says. "It's creating a serious problem in our schools and our society, and we have to take strong action if we want to be a country of strong morals and ideals. Our position will continue to be that with anyone found in violation of the policy, we will take the severest steps possible."

Nor does the flare-up over drug testing appear likely to prompt many teachers to balk at signing their contracts. "I have three more years before I can retire," Windsor's Linda Lynes says. "I'm not going to do anything to jeopardize my retirement, my insurance, and all that. I'll sign the contract, and I guess I'd go take the drug test, but I'd really, really resent it."

Still, Hearn is not done fighting. Georgia's board of education in November turned down her appeal of her dismissal, but she's preparing to take her case to state or federal court. It took a little girl in Little Rock who stood up for what was right to end segregated schools, Hearn says. "I figured the same thing would be necessary here. But I truly believed that at some point, some parent would be the one to do it. I never thought it would be me."

Meanwhile, Hearn craves the classroom. After her dismissal, she held class at her home for a group of her Advanced Placement American history students. Whether or not she was officially considered their teacher, Hearn wanted them to take the AP exam with the best possible preparation.

This fall, she taught a course at nearby Armstrong State College. But full-time work has been more elusive; her applications to 31 private and public schools within a two and a half hour round-trip commute of Savannah have yet to net an offer. Money's not tight yet, but she and Dick know they may have to shelve some of their dream plans for retirement. Barring huge legal bills that tap out their savings, they still expect to build a cabin on a piece of property they own in the mountains of north Georgia.

"Listen," she says, "if this is over with and we lose, then the two of us will have been taught that we live in a different America than we thought. And we will go live on our mountain for the rest of our lives. And the whole rest of the world can just go to hell. We won't come down, and they won't come up."

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