Federal Court Delivers Thorough Rejection of Random Teacher Drug Testing in West Virginia

January 8, 2009 12:00 am

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CHARLESTON, WV – A federal court in West Virginia today issued a written order halting the proposed random, suspicionless drug testing of nearly all Kanawha County public school employees. The order provides a thorough rationale for last week’s verbal ruling to block the controversial program and comes in response to a lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union in partnership with the West Virginia Education Association, which argues that drug testing without cause violates public servants’ constitutional right to privacy.

“While today’s ruling is in line with the rejection of random teacher drug testing by other courts, it offers the most comprehensive examination of the issue to date,” said Adam Wolf, an attorney with the ACLU. “Public servants nationwide should breathe a sigh of relief knowing that their constitutional rights remain firmly intact.”

Today’s order, issued by Chief Judge Joseph R. Goodwin of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of West Virginia, held that the constitutional right to privacy outweighed the government’s interest in drug testing virtually all public school employees without cause – particularly in light of the government’s inability to document a single instance where student safety had been impacted by employee drug use coupled with the fact that teachers are under near constant observation by students, peers and superiors.

The order concluded, in part, by citing the words of former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall: “Precisely because the need for action against the drug scourge is manifest, the need for vigilance against unconstitutional excess is great. … [W]hen we allow fundamental freedoms to be sacrificed in the name of real or perceived emergency, we invariably come to regret it.”

The proposed random drug testing policy was adopted by the Kanawha County School Board in October 2008 after months of contentious debate and had been set to take effect January 1, 2009. Specifically, the Board acted to significantly and inaccurately expand the definition of “safety-sensitive” employees in an effort to allow for the random drug testing of these positions, according to the ACLU.

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that the government may only conduct suspicionless drug tests of employees in “safety-sensitive” job roles, such as air traffic controllers or nuclear power plant operators, whose job functions, if done improperly, would cause specific and potentially catastrophic threats to the public safety.

Today’s order firmly rejected the contention that public school employees meet the criteria for random drug testing: “A train, nuclear reactor, or firearm in the hands of someone on drugs presents an actual concrete risk to numerous people – the same cannot be said for a teacher wielding a history textbook.”

In addition to violating public employees’ constitutional right to privacy, random drug testing programs have been found demonstrably ineffective by the National Academy of Sciences, among others, producing a false sense of security that distracts from actual safety threats.

Random drug testing may also reveal extremely sensitive personal information, such as medical conditions, prescription drug use or pregnancy, and can produce an unacceptably high rate of false-positives, resulting in suspicion cast on entirely innocent individuals.

Today’s order may be found online at: www.aclu.org/drugpolicy/testing/38266lgl20090108.html

Portions of the ACLU’s and WVEA’s legal filing can be found at: www.aclu.org/drugpolicy/testing/38001lgl20081205.html and www.aclu.org/drugpolicy/testing/38002lgl20081205.html

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