Friday, January 30, 2009

Drug testing policy suspended for LA teachers

Associated Press Writer

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — A local Louisiana school board has agreed to suspend a policy that allowed school officials to test teachers for drugs and alcohol after being injured on the job — a practice challenged in a federal lawsuit filed by the local teachers union.

An agreement signed Thursday by U.S. District Judge James Brady says the East Baton Rouge Parish school board will not conduct such tests unless it has a reasonable suspicion that a teacher was under the influence of drugs or alcohol while injured on the job.

That agreement will remain in effect pending the outcome of the civil rights lawsuit that the teachers union, with the backing of the American Civil Liberties Union, filed against the school board in October.

Peggy Reno, a teacher at the parish's Mohican Education Center, filed a separate lawsuit that claims she was forced to submit to a drug test after a student punched her in September. The union said a school principal ordered a drug test for another teacher, Susan Fontenot, who was attacked by a student in August 2006.

The union, which represents about 1,600 members, said a federal appeals court in New Orleans ruled in 1998 that teachers who aren't suspected of wrongdoing can have their constitutional rights violated by mandatory drug testing after an on-the-job injury.

"The drug and alcohol testing policy of (the school board) is overly broad, overly intrusive, and without a compelling state interest or even a rational basis," the union's lawsuit states.

Dennis Blunt, a lawyer for the school board, said the board hasn't been enforcing the policy for at least several months. Blunt said the policy itself adheres to the law, but some school officials or employees may have misunderstood the testing requirements.

"I think there might be some confusion from a staff standpoint," he said. "It might not have been written in a fashion that folks understood what they had to do. But if it was not, it will be."

ACLU attorney Adam Wolf said "suspicionless" drug testing of teachers is rare. Last month, however, a federal judge in West Virginia blocked the Kanawha County school system from implementing a new policy that would have allowed for random drug testing of school employees, including teachers.

"Suspicionless searches by the government are presumed unconstitutional," Wolf said. "There's a very narrow exception for workers who occupy safety-sensitive positions, like nuclear power plant operators. But dealing with spent nuclear fuel is very different from dealing with chalk and erasers."

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.

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