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Published in Print: August 1, 2000, as Reefer Madness: January 1997

Reefer Madness: January 1997

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Not too long ago, Sherry Hearn moved from a busy residential neighborhood in Savannah, Georgia, to the outskirts of town. Fruit trees dot her quiet one-acre lot, and a towering oak draped in Spanish moss shades the back yard. French doors leading from her bedroom open to a mile-long, spring-fed lake.

It's the perfect place to retire, and Hearn, 52, and her husband, Dick, 53, are more than ready for their golden years. Dick's been an electrical contractor for nearly three decades. And Sherry? Well, she'd rather not tell you what she does for a living. She's afraid to, really. Seems like every time somebody makes a big deal about her past, trouble starts. And for the first time in what seems like forever, she has a steady paycheck, health insurance, and a full pension within reach. Why risk that?

But Hearn will tell you one thing: Though she spent 27 years at the head of a classroom in Georgia's Savannah-Chatham County school system, and though she was once named the district's top teacher, she's not teaching. Hearn is perhaps the best teacher ever fired on account of a half-smoked, hand-rolled joint.

Her fall from grace began on April 4, 1996. That day, like every other school day for the past quarter century, she was in her classroom at Windsor Forest High in Savannah. A native of the city, Hearn had grown up with one ambitionto teach. And she was good at it. Nearly a generation of kids had fallen under her spell; she was the fiery social studies teacher who breathed life into relics like the Constitution. In 1994, she was named the district's Teacher of the Year.

By the end of that day, however, Hearn's reputation would be in tatters. In the morning, the local sheriff's department joined with campus police to sweep Windsor Forest for drugs and weapons. This wasn't unusual: As part of a safety campaign, Savannah-Chatham had conducted more than 150 such searches of its 15 middle and high schools in recent years. Each time, the target school was "locked down" while police went room to room, searching students and their belongings with drug-sniffing dogs and hand-held metal detectors. Hearn had protested the sweeps many times. They violated the kids' constitutional rights, she had complained to colleagues, officials, and even the superintendent. But this time around, she stood silently.

Later that morning, police expanded the search to include the school's parking lot. There, one of the drug dogs-Corporal Sonya, by name—hit on Hearn's 1980 Oldsmobile. In the car's ashtray, campus police found a hand-rolled cigarette. A field test proved it to be marijuana. Hearn was called out of class, read her Miranda rights, and ordered to take a drug test.

The teacher denied the dope was hers. She knew nothing about it, she told the officers; a student sneaking a toke in the parking lot might have panicked when police rolled up and stashed the joint in the unlocked car. Police couldn't even produce the evidence. Officers told Hearn it was destroyed in the field test.

District officials, meanwhile, demanded that Hearn report to a lab for a urinalysis. Policy requires such a test when a teacher is suspected of drug use. But Hearn balked. What would her students think? To the teacher, the drug-test policy, like the lockdowns, violated the Fourth Amendment's protection against unreasonable search and seizure. For years, she had urged students to stand up for their constitutional rights; those rights, she cautioned them, had been paid for with the blood of thousands of Americans. If she were to be true to her teaching, Hearn concluded, she would have to refuse the drug test. So she did.

Police didn't file charges against Hearn—it would have been hard to make a case stick without the joint as evidence—but Savannah-Chatham fired the teacher. At a 16-hour school board hearing the next month to determine her fate, dozens of students and colleagues testified to her teaching talent and to her drug-free lifestyle. But officials held firm. Hearn's contract stipulated that she abide by school policies, the district's lawyer argued; her refusal to take the drug test was "naked insubordination." Letting her off the hook would only encourage others to break rules.

With that decision, Hearn was shut out of the Savannah classrooms that had anchored her life since she was a tot. The teacher sued, but knowing the court battle would drag on for years, she began looking for work in nearby districts. On every application, she duly noted her firing and explained the circumstances. But nothing turned up. As time went on and panic set in, Hearn widened her search and traveled the state to plead her case at any school with an opening. "I just waited in the hall until I could get five minutes with the principal and let him know that I didn't have horns," she says.

Once, she was interviewed and hired at a South Carolina school a few hours away from Savannah, only to have the principal call and rescind the offer by the time her car pulled into the driveway at home. Desperate, she began applying for any post that would earn her the roughly three years of state service in Georgia she needed to collect her pension—librarian, college bookstore manager, even secretary. She briefly took a job as a caseworker for state Medicaid recipients. Finally, in the summer of 1998, she got a job teaching English—at a state-run juvenile detention center.

The work proved hellish. The center had no janitors, so teachers were forced to scrub the classroom floors and toilets. Most days, Hearn pushed a cart piled with books from cellblock to cellblock. Her classes of 20 students ranged in age from 8 to 20 and included kids convicted of anything from truancy to sexual assault. One small boy had been jailed for setting his grandmother's house on fire.

Still, Hearn managed a few breakthroughs. She got a group of girls hooked on Emily Dickinson poems and spurred an older inmate to do SAT prep work. Once, when she read aloud from Edgar Allan Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart"—How, then, am I mad?—the kids were transfixed, the clang of jail cells and the echo of her words in the cement cellblock conspiring for eerie atmospherics. "It was truly spooky," Hearn recalls. "When I finished, they stood up and applauded."

In January 1999, about seven months into Hearn's stint at the center, NBC's Dateline aired a report on her firing from Windsor Forest and her ongoing court battle. Hearn says she told her supervisor about the potential Dateline story when she interviewed for the job. Nonetheless, officials fired her a couple of weeks after the broadcast. They denied the move was connected to the report, but Hearn says they refused to offer any explanation. In fact, she adds that only a few days before her termination, she had received a largely satisfactory performance evaluation.

Hearn had no better luck in her court case. Her lawyers took two tactics. First, they cited a double standard in the district's decision to fire Hearn for violating policy. Specifically, they noted that police had neglected to get Hearn's consent to search her car—consent required by the district's own policy. Second, the lawyers argued that the search was illegal under the Fourth Amendment. But the courts were not sympathetic. A federal district judge dismissed her suit in 1998, a ruling affirmed the next year by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit. The appeals court ruled that the district's violation of its own policy was inconsequential; the search of Hearn's car involved local law enforcement officials, who don't have to abide by school rules, it said. The judges also ruled that Corporal Sonya's alert gave the officers sufficient grounds—even probable cause—to search Hearn's car. The teacher appealed that decision, but the U.S. Supreme Court last spring declined to hear the case, a sign that fewer than four judges believed the suit merited consideration.

Though these rulings suggest she misread the Constitution, Hearn says she has no second thoughts. She kept faith with her students, some of whom have sent her letters of support. After watching the Dateline report, one wrote, "I again felt compelled—compelled to tell you thanks for inspiring me, thanks for inspiring others, and most importantly, thanks for practicing what you preach."

Even before the Supreme Court's ruling, Hearn had become a hero to civil liberties advocates. Activist and columnist Nat Hentoff used Hearn's story as a case study in his 1998 book, Living the Bill of Rights: How To Be an Authentic American. And the Rutherford Institute, a nonprofit civil liberties organization, backed her appeal to the Supreme Court.

"She showed great courage in how she taught and how she lived her life," says John Whitehead, the institute's president and the lawyer who handled her appeal. "It's too bad she didn't get her day in court."

To others, Hearn's case was a tragedy of her own making. "It was her call and her judgment," says Leamon Holliday, attorney for the Savannah-Chatham school board. "No school district wants to lose a good teacher. A lot of people are disappointed that she made the choice that she did."

Lockdowns and police sweeps continue in the district's schools, Holliday says. "It's a battle," he explains, "and it's a battle we have to fight because schools are a part of a society that's violent." The sweeps aren't done as frequently as they once were, however. "With this kind of tactic," Holliday says, "you reach a point of saturation."

Hearn, meanwhile, adjusts to a new life. Last spring, her daughter, Jennifer, finished her first year as an elementary teacher. The 23-year-old has wanted to teach all her life—just like her mother—but she's sworn never to work in Savannah. Hearn's son, Richard, lives at home and works as an electrician. A student at Windsor Forest when his mother was fired, he was deeply troubled by the turmoil. A few months before, police had singled him out for a search during a lockdown, claiming he reeked of marijuana. Afterward he caught flak from friends who believed the joint in his mother's car was his.

Hearn, however, says that would have been impossible. Only 15 at the time, Richard was not allowed to drive by himself, she says, and he had been in class all morning. Moreover, he told her he knew nothing about the pot. "Richie's not a perfect child," she says. "But I'm certain in my heart that it wasn't his. He's never lied to me."

The Hearns' new house was originally built by Dick's parents for their retirement. Richard and Jennifer learned to swim in the lake, and the family spent many happy hours there. "We've come home," Hearn says. Soon, she and Dick hope to build a cabin on some property in the mountains of north Georgia, land they nearly sold when money got tight.

As for her new job, Hearn secured the post a little more than a year ago. She'll say only that she's happy. "But it's not in a classroom," she adds. "I've known all along that, unless I win in court, I will never work in the classroom again. Now, that's lost forever."

Vol. 12, Issue 1, Pages 24-27

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