The Reagan Administration last week asked New York State’s highest court to uphold a Long Island school district’s controversial plan to require probationary teachers to submit to drug tests as a condition of obtaining tenure.
In papers filed in a lawsuit that is being watched closely by educators nationwide, the Administration argues that courts should grant school authorities “broad discretion’’ in determining whether teachers should be tested for use of illegal drugs.
“We in the Department of Justice view freedom from drugs as a valid condition of employment for school teachers,’' said Attorney General Edwin Meese 3rd during a March 19 speech at the University of Mississippi, at which he announced the Administration’s action. The text of his remarks was released here.
“In the case of teachers, the transmission of values and ethics, by example as well as by precept, is an important part of their professional duty,’' Mr. Meese said. “Thus, freedom from drugs is very much a fitness-for-duty issue for them.’'
“Drug testing has been upheld when applied to transportation workers and others whose jobs have a direct effect on public safety,’' the Attorney General added. “And it seems to me almost an insult to teachers to maintain that their jobs are any less important.’'
Spokesmen for the two national teachers’ unions were quick to criticize the Administration’s intervention in the case, Patchogue-Medford Congress of Teachers v. Board of Education of the Patchogue-Medford Union Free School District. The governing boards of both unions had previously adopted positions that strongly oppose mandatory drug testing of teachers.
“Drug abuse is certainly a serious societal concern,’' said Ruth Whitman, a spokesman for the American Federation of Teachers. “But the A.F.T. is asking, ‘Is drug testing the best way of getting at the problem?’ Drug tests may be politically hot, but we doubt whether they represent a responsible solution.’'
Stefanie Weiss, a spokesman for the National Education Association, called Mr. Meese’s statement “a headline grabber.’'
“At the same time that they are doing this, they are cutting off funding for drug-education programs,’' she said. “That clearly indicates that they are not sincere about dealing with the problem.’'
School officials have been monitoring the New York case closely because it is one of the first in the nation to challenge the constitutionality of such tests for teachers.
The dispute began in May 1985, when the Long Island school district’s superintendent announced the testing policy as part of an ambitious systemwide anti-drug effort.
The policy would require probationary teachers, as a prerequisite to obtaining tenure, to submit urine samples to school nurses to be tested for the presence of drugs. Teachers testing positive after an initial test would have been required to undergo counseling. Those testing positive on a second test would not, in most cases, be recommended for tenure, school officials said. (See Education Week, June 5, 1985.)
The local teachers’ union, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers, filed suit in Suffolk County Supreme Court seeking an injunction blocking the policy from taking effect. The trial court granted the injunction, holding that the proposed tests would constitute an unreasonable search and seizure in violation of the Fourth Amendment.
The Appellate Division of the State Supreme Court upheld the lower court’s ruling last August. (See Education Week, Sept. 10, 1986.)
The appellate division “could not have been more mistaken when it concluded’’ that school boards do not have as great an interest in ensuring that their employees do not abuse drugs as do public-safety and transportation agencies, the Administration contends in a “friend of the court’’ brief filed with the New York State Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court.
“If one child’s life is ruined by rugs, that can be fully as great a tragedy as a death or injury in a train or bus accident,’' it argues. “From the standpoint of the nation’s future, teachers hold one of the most important jobs in our society, and the need to keep that job free of drug use could not be greater.’'
The Administration’s brief maintains that freedom from drug use is a reasonable condition of employment for teachers. The test in question, it says, is “simply another procedure to determine fitness for duty,’' and represents a “very limited intrusion’’ on the Fourth Amendment privacy rights of teachers.
In addition, the Administration argues, a decision by the state high court upholding the lower courts’ ban on the proposed tests would have a “chilling’’ effect on school officials’ ability “to carry out their educational functions.’'
“School authorities who must attempt to curb the widespread use of drugs among students simply cannot tolerate drug usage among teachers,’' the Administration states.
"[W]hile a teacher’s drug usage may eventually be detected if it noticeably affects classroom performance,’' it continues, “the much more subtle influence that teachers have as role models and as adults who convey basic values as respect for the law ... may go permanently undetected by school authorities.’'
“School officials should not have to stand by while multiple generations of youth develop overly tolerant attitudes toward illegal drug use and diminished respect for the laws of this country,’' it concludes.
A version of this article appeared in the March 25, 1987 edition of Education Week as Meese Supports Plan To Require Teachers To Take Drug Tests