THEIR VIEW: Goodwin gives Kanawha schools a lesson on Constitution

By The West Virginia Record | Jan 15, 2009


MORGANTOWN -- Thomas Jefferson wrote to James Madison that the Bill of Rights was, "like all other human blessings, alloyed with some inconveniences."

No doubt the Kanawha County school board finds U.S. District Court Judge Joseph Goodwin's interpretation of the Fourth Amendment annoying, if not downright wrong.

Last week, Goodwin elaborated on his decision to block the school board's mandatory, random drug-testing policy for teachers and other school employees. He said the suspicionless searches were illegal.

A full hearing will follow, and school officials will try to show that its drug-testing policy will help deal with the problem of drug abuse in the work place.

They will argue that teachers and other school employees are in "safety sensitive positions" in which "a single mistake by such employee can create an immediate threat of serious harm to students, to him or herself or to fellow employees."

But Judge Goodwin isn't buying it, at least not so far.

Goodwin's research found that the threat posed by a worker must be concrete, meaning "an actual, threatened danger and not some perceived danger." It's not enough for school supervisors to simply fear the potential hazard of a stoned teacher or maintenance worker.

Yes, Goodwin says, teachers may have to break up a fight or help students leave the school during a fire drill, but he says there is no evidence that teaching responsibilities are so fraught with danger that "even a momentary lapse of attention can have disastrous consequences."

Under the judge's logic, if the positions are not "safety sensitive," then there is no justification for suspending the employees' privacy protection guaranteed by the Fourth Amendment. The violation of such a right constitutes "irreparable harm."

It's possible, though not conclusive, that the random drug testing might weed out a couple of teachers or school employees who use illegal drugs. That's an outcome that school officials and parents would cheer.

If the judge's decision stands, the Kanawha County school system will be faced with the inconvenience of drug testing only when there's an actual suspicion. As Jefferson said, the protections in the Bill of Rights may be inconvenient, "but the good in this instance vastly outweighs the evil."

Some good could come of all this. Kanawha County civics, history and current events teachers should distribute Judge Goodwin's 37-page opinion and study it in class. That way the students can learn that the Bill of Rights is not just some ancient parchment drafted by dead men, but rather a defining statement of right and protections that still affect our daily lives.

Kercheval is host of TalkLine, broadcast by the MetroNews Statewide Radio Network from 10 a.m. to noon Monday through Friday.

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