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Up In Smoke

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Several times she had complained to a member of the board of education that the district's enforcement of zero tolerance violated the Constitution.

The episode hardened Sherry's hatred of the district's hardball strategy to rid schools of drugs. She had sounded off about both the searches and the drug-testing policy at Windsor faculty meetings. Several times she had complained to John Matthews, a member of the board of education and a friend, that the district's enforcement of zero tolerance violated the Constitution.

On April 4, however, Hearn's words would be tested. After the building lockdown at Windsor, police searched the parking lot with the drug-sniffing dogs. When Chatham County Deputy Sheriff Kevin Street and his dog, Corporal Sonya, passed Hearn's 1980 Oldsmobile sedan, the dog sat—the alert that she detected an illegal substance. Street then allowed Sonya to jump through the car's open window, and she made a beeline for the ashtray. Campus police ran a field test on the hand-rolled cigarette found there and determined it was marijuana.

Inside the building, meanwhile, students released from the lockdown flooded the halls as they reported to third-period classes. A student passing Hearn in the hall told her that a police dog was in her car. She shrugged it off; the dog wouldn't find anything, she told the student. But a few minutes later, as the building was emptying for the bomb threat, an assistant principal hurried up to Hearn. The drug dog had zeroed in on her car, he said.

When Hearn approached the car, she says she saw one of the police officers stuffing items back into her son's book bag, which had been lying on the back seat. Asked to open the trunk, she complied, and Corporal Sonya jumped in, circled, and jumped out. Then police told Hearn about the reefer found in the car's ashtray and escorted her to the office of principal Herman.

When the marijuana was discovered, district policy No. 766, commonly known as the "drug-free workplace" policy, kicked in.

The bomb threat had proved a hoax, but Hearn's situation would not be so easily defused. In Herman's office, Hearn protested that the drug was not hers. She had no idea how the joint got in the ashtray, she explained. One of the electric windows in her car was not working and was stuck open; anyone could have stashed the pot there. Her objections mattered little at that moment, however. When the marijuana was discovered, district policy No. 766, commonly known as the "drug-free workplace" policy, kicked in. With Hearn in her office, principal Herman made several phone calls to central-office administrators to nail down 766's required procedures. Hearn, a deputy superintendent told her, had to report for a drug test within two hours or face possible termination. Herman repeated those words to Hearn and then asked the administrator to confirm that those were the proper instructions. Within minutes, the district sent a fax to the school notifying Hearn of her immediate suspension in accordance with 766.

She repeated her objections to the drug test as a violation of her constitutional rights. Dick would want me to take the test and be done with the mess, she told Herman. But how could I face my students? When Hearn continued to balk at the drug test, a campus police officer read her Miranda rights to her and said that she might be arrested on criminal charges of possession of marijuana.

Eventually, Hearn decided to page Dick—he's an electrical contractor—and call an attorney. As Hearn was leaving the office, Herman handed her a second fax from the central office, this one with instructions for the drug test. "I had been thinking and talking about this for three years, wondering why somebody didn't do something," Hearn says. "Now the ball was in my court."

Once home, Hearn phoned their family attorney. "I kept thinking, I'm right on this," Hearn remembers. "I knew if I could get her on the phone, she'd tell me, 'You're right, Sherry. Go for it. They can't do this to you.' " But the lawyer was in court and could not be reached.

Hearn's case had drawn more mail than any single incident since Georgia Governor Zell Miller moved to rid the state's flag of an inset of the Stars and Bars of the Confederacy.

About that time, Dick arrived home. "My first inclination," he says, "was, 'Get in the car, go to the lab, take the damn test, and forget it.' " He even persuaded Sherry to drive with him to the lab. But once there, they circled the building for maybe half an hour. As Dick drove, Sherry cried. They talked about how she would probably lose her job if she didn't take the test. Getting it back, they decided, would undoubtedly mean a court fight.

Still, Sherry couldn't bring herself to go into the lab. "I spent 27 years telling other teachers, 'Why don't you fight that? They can't make you do that. Stand up for yourself,' " she explains. "Teachers as a breed are just doormats. That's one of the things that I hate about the profession. So many teachers are just so uncommitted to anything but survival and getting by and following the program. And that's just not what you need.

"After I've been ranting and raving about this all these years, this was the first time to show and tell. And if I fold, what does that make me? What does that make me in the eyes of my colleagues? What does that make me in the eyes of my students?

"It was absolutely do what your gut tells you is the right thing to do and risk it all."

A month later, the board of education called a hearing to decide whether to fire Hearn. By then, the case was a hot topic in the local media. The Savannah Morning News eventually stopped printing letters to the editor, explaining that Hearn's case had drawn more mail than any single incident since Georgia Governor Zell Miller moved in 1993 to rid the state's flag of an inset of the Stars and Bars of the Confederacy.

The hearing room on the morning of April 30 was packed with Hearn's supporters. Some wore white ribbons with the slogans "Teach By Example" and "People Not Policy." Hearn's friends had run a full-page, $4,000 advertisement in the Morning News calling her character "above reproach." "Sherry was the type of person that if she was a drug user, she would have told you," says Linda Lynes, a guidance counselor at Windsor. "She did what the rest of us didn't have the guts to do. She took a stand."

For some of the city's community leaders, the episode was proof that the district's law-and-order tactics were getting out of hand. Ben Price, a Chatham County commissioner and a friend of Hearn's, voted for a zero-tolerance resolution when he was a member of the school board in the late 1980s. "But I never envisioned lockdowns," he says. "The phrase 'lockdown' refers to prison to me; they have lockdowns in prison."

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