By Mannix Porterfield
Putting every student and teacher to a mandatory drug screen, as recommended by the Beckley-Raleigh County Chamber of Commerce, is a waste of money that could be better spent on improving education, say West Virginia’s two teacher organizations.
Two weeks ago, the Chamber called for wholesale drug testing of all students and schoolhouse employees.
But both the West Virginia Education Association and the state chapter of the American Federation of Teachers say this isn’t sound policy, since counties now may exercise random screens when there is reasonable cause to suspect drug misuse.
Teacher organizations went to federal court a few years ago and successfully challenged a blanket drug policy imposed in Kanawha County.
So far, no one in the Legislature has called for mandatory testing in legislation for the 2013 session, but if someone does, count on both the WVEA and AFT to put up stiff resistance.
“The federal courts have deemed our random drug testing procedure is adequate to meet the needs of the counties,” Kym Randolph, communications director for the WVEA, said Monday.
“If there’s reasonable suspicion, you can request for employees to be tested, and the employee has no choice but to comply.”
Randolph said courts have held that teachers and bus operators aren’t in the same kind of safety-sensitive category as, say, nuclear engineers.
“We find that the instances of teachers who are abusing drugs would be very low and the costs would be very high,” she said.
“I think the money can be better spent in our schools to impact student achievement.”
Christine Campbell, the incoming president of the AFT in West Virginia, agrees.
“I don’t see how that’s cost-efficient for education,” Campbell said of the proposed testing.
“If there’s somebody that clearly needs to be tested, then we agree that should happen. But you’re talking about a lot of money going into drug testing people, assuming they have some reason to be tested. We’re looking for professionalism here.”
At the Chamber meeting, it was pointed out that Putnam County spent some $50,000 to impose drug testing that revealed one-half of 1 percent of students were found to be positive.
“We’re looking for efficiency in the school system and we’re looking for how to best spend our money,” Campbell said.
A recent audit of the school system, ordered by Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, discussed means of moving money closer to the classroom.
“This is an expense that does not improve student achievement,” Campbell said of the Chamber’s proposal.
Counties have some latitude in administering drug testing, but the AFT has learned, given the small numbers testing positive, “the cost is not worth it,” she said.
Moreover, teachers feel insulted if asked to undergo a blanket drug screen, she said.
“We’re trying to get the highest qualified person for the job,” the AFT’s incoming president said.
“We certainly don’t want to be looking for reasons for people to say, ‘Well, if you don’t trust me enough to take this job.’ A lot of teachers find that offensive.”
Randolph said some schools use a procedure to test students engaged in athletics and other extracurricular activities.
“I know that those appear to go off pretty much without a hitch and very few students are caught up in that,” the WVEA official said.
“I think the same thing applies. If there is a reason to suppose a student is on drugs or has a problem, then there are procedures to go through to deal with those students.”
What’s more, students in school sports and other activities are among the better ones on a campus and are unlikely to put their standing at risk by using drugs, Randolph said.
“I think people have this great belief that all of our kids and our teachers are having drug problems,” she said.
“There may be drug problems in our schools. It’s not every kid and it certainly is not every teacher. So, you need to focus and spend money on the folks that you believe or have some kind of reasonable suspicion of and spend the rest of the money more wisely.”
West Virginia teachers work under a code of ethics, Campbell pointed out.
“There is a professional conduct standard that we have to follow,” she said. “If there’s a reasonable question, they can already do that (order testing).”
As for wholesale testing, she added, “It just doesn’t make sense.”