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Up In Smoke

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While some students joined her love affair with history, others simply loved Ms. Hearn. She challenged them to think, and, unlike other teachers, she never belittled the thoughts that she coaxed from them. And when she lectured, she spun such captivating tales that her students virtually lived history, their eyes smarting with the battlefield smoke of Bull Run or their ribs aching from the pounding spray of Bull Connor's fire hoses in Birmingham. "You'd walk through her door, and you'd be in a whole other world," says Marcus Smith, a student in Hearn's advanced-placement American history course last year.

As hard as Hearn tried to shut that door to outside intrusions, though, "downtown" always seemed to find a way to push the door open. "We've gone through superintendents like growing children go through shoes," she says. "Every five or six years, they leave, and every superintendent has this new idea for what's going to be this revolutionary change in the school. We've tried everything imaginable. That's why most teachers look at most reforms and they just yawn and say, 'Been there, done that. Please leave me alone and just let me teach.' "

And if Hearn wasn't left alone to teach, she fought with the fierceness of a bear protecting her cubs. At times, her grievances were small. When Windsor's newly acquired copying machine continually jammed with the cheap paper issued by the district, Hearn hounded the district's purchasing officer. Finally, a truck pulled up to Windsor carrying reams of higher-grade stock. She remembers, "I went through a period for about two or three years about then where I decided, By God, I will not take no for an answer when it's stupid."

Other times, Hearn battled for dramatic change. Once, tired of school board decisions that she thought wrongly meddled in the classroom, she fought for and won the creation of a board seat for a teacher representative. Such crusades won admiration and respect from many of her colleagues. In fact, her crusade to rewrite an exam schedule bitterly hated by Windsor's teachers prompted them to nominate her for Teacher of the Year honors.

But occasionally, Hearn rubbed some on the Windsor staff the wrong way. She admits to being a harsh critic of teachers she felt weren't making the grade; she has declined to join a union in large part because she thinks they protect mediocre teachers. At faculty meetings, when prickly situations arose, friends sometimes gripped her knee under the table as a warning to keep her mouth shut. "There's never, ever a situation that comes along that one has to wonder where Sherry stands," says Anita Varner, a longtime friend and colleague of Hearn's. "She is very willing to let one know her position—especially if it's an issue where she feels something is wrong. She's always willing to say exactly what she thinks."

Such off-the-cuff candor sometimes sabotaged Hearn's campaigns to change policy, though. "To be very honest, she did give people higher up hell," Varner says. "And sometimes, she was not nice about it, either. She could have a little temper fit and say all sorts of things that really aren't the courteous or nice thing to say if you want to get things done. But that's just the way God made her."

In February 1992, the Savannah-Chatham County school administration adopted a "zero tolerance" policy.

Savannah launched its war on drugs in the early 1990s. At that time, a teenage gang of cocaine dealers was terrorizing the city. The gang's leader, Ricky Jivens, demanded that members kill to prove their loyalty, and soon this quiet town, famous for Spanish moss and Southern charm, posted a murder rate nearly equal to the nation's big-time crime capitals.

Jivens and his lieutenants were eventually arrested, and a few months after their conviction in February 1992, the Savannah-Chatham County school administration adopted a "zero tolerance" policy. The district was in many ways ahead of the curve. President Clinton and the Congress were still two years away from passing a law to withhold federal aid from states where schools did not expel students caught with drugs, alcohol, and weapons. The police lockdowns and searches were also the first of their kind in Georgia.

Savannah's schools did not have a severe drug problem at the time, says superintendent Patrick Russo. "There was nothing other than the idea that we should be proactive before the problem escalates to the point where we have to do something." Today, after more than 150 searches in the schools, many Savannah residents consider them a highly effective deterrent. Contraband is seldom found, Russo says, but "students are beginning to get some familiarity with the fact that we're not playing games. We're not tolerating any student who is in any way, shape, or form involved with drugs or alcohol or weapons."

On April 4, county and campus police assembled at about 8 a.m. in a shopping mall parking lot near Windsor, the traditional staging area for sweeps of the school. Timing of the searches is supposed to be secret, but Windsor students late for class and picking up breakfast at the nearby Burger King occasionally spot the gathering swarm of law enforcement officers.

During a November sweep, police reported to Windsor school administrators that Sherry Hearn was interfering.

This was to be the third search of Windsor in the 1995-96 school year. It would also be the year's third search where a member of the Hearn family would get swept up in controversy. During a November sweep, police reported to Windsor school administrators that Sherry Hearn was interfering. Hearn, however, claims that police overreacted when they overheard her answer to a student's question about why the searches upset her: "I said, 'Because I teach the Constitution.' And that's all I said." Regardless, Windsor principal Linda Herman made a point at every search thereafter of instructing officers to treat Hearn and her students with the utmost professionalism.

Then, on January 22, during the second sweep of Windsor, a police officer claimed that Hearn's 15-year-old son Richard "reeked" of marijuana. (According to a police report filed later, a drug-sniffing dog hit on Richard; the Hearns contend the dog passed by their son twice and never signaled to its handler.) Richard, who was working out in the weight room at the time, was taken aside and told to take off his shoes; his socks were also checked. Richard protested that the search violated his constitutional rights. The police report says he cursed the officers and describes him as "hostile, somewhat arrogant." No drugs were found.

"We went ballistic when we found out," Dick Hearn says. He and Sherry are confident that police targeted their son because of Sherry's opposition to the lockdowns; they believe Richard was the only one searched that day. Dick immediately contacted the American Civil Liberties Union about possible legal action and demanded a written report on the incident from the district—a report that would be written a month after the episode but not sent to the Hearns for another six weeks.

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