Pa. measure requiring drug tests of prospective teachers, school workers advances

 A laboratory chemist checks a vial with a urine sample. (AP Photo/Damian Dovargane, file)

A laboratory chemist checks a vial with a urine sample. (AP Photo/Damian Dovargane, file)

A bill calling for drug testing of prospective teachers and school employees in Pennsylvania has passed in the state House.

 

If passed by the state Senate, it would affect all candidates offered positions by traditional district schools, charter schools and cybercharter schools. Applicants would be barred from employment if the screening revealed the presence of illegal drugs.

“We introduced this piece of legislation mainly to protect our children and solve problems before [drug users] get into the system,” said state Rep. Tony DeLuca who sponsored the legislation

DeLuca, D-Allegheny,  said he didn’t have data on the pervasiveness of the drug use among educators, but said “numerous” anecdotal reports motivated him to introduce the legislation four years ago. He referenced a recent example in which a 26-year-old substitute art teacher in Pittsburgh admitted to using heroin before passing out in front of his high school class.

“We gotta make sure when our children go to school, they’re taught by individuals who are alert and free of drugs,” DeLuca said.

A 2007 study by federal department of Health and Human Services found that 4 percent of employees working in education reported illicit drug use. The average for all professions was 11 percent.

The same study found that, among the nation’s full-time workers, 47 million (or 42.9 percent) reported that they submitted to drug-screening tests during the hiring process.

ACLU objects deems bill ‘unconstitutional’

The American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania called the bill “invasive, impractical and unconstitutional.”

“The sample that’s taken during a drug test is essentially a biological form of a person’s medical record,” said Andy Hoover, ACLU legislative director.

“It tells not just what illicit drugs they may be using, but also prescription drugs, diseases they may have; it can reveal reveal pregnancy,” he said. “So this is very personal and private information that the government has no business knowing.”

The ACLU argues the legislation violates the Fourth Amendment, which says that the government must have suspicion of wrongdoing before enacting a search.

Other attempts to enact similar legislation in other states have been defeated both legislatively and through the court system.

The courts have upheld a public safety exception to the Fourth Amendment that compels some government employees to undergo testing – typically workers who must operate vehicles.

“It’s just another example of people who feel the need to demonize teachers instead of giving them the tools that they need in order to do their jobs,” said Jerry Jordan, president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers.

ACLU’s Hoover says there are already provisions in place for removing teachers whose performance suffers based on drug use.

“The administrators can address that–even to the point of testing–if they have suspicion,” he said. “It’s not like someone can simply show up high at school.”

Children’s safety at stake, DeLuca says

DeLuca disagreed that those provisions are enough to keep children safe.

“It makes no sense to me that we have ‘drug-free zones,’ and we tell our students to ‘say no to drugs,’ yet we don’t screen these individuals before they get into the system,” he said.

Although the bill as written wouldn’t require existing school employees to be screened, DeLuca says that he would “love” to see a law that would require random drug testing for all school employees.

Prospective employees would be compelled to cover the costs of the testing – anywhere, DeLuca said, from $30 to $50.

Individuals on prescription drugs would be protected from provisions in the bill.

“I know there’s casual users that on the weekend like to party and that kinda stuff, but I think there’s two places that we can’t have that double standard,” DeLuca said. “That’s in our school districts and in our law enforcement.”

So would DeLuca introduce a bill that would require drug screening for prospective members of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives?

“No problem,” he said. “I’d be happy to introduce that.”

Pressed on if he’d follow through with introducing such legislation, Deluca said, “I could introduce that to satisfy some people … I don’t know where it would go.

“I think people in government all over should be tested, not just the House of Representatives, we got a lot of people making decisions on people’s lives -– people in local government, people in the governor’s office, different staff members -– should we test them all?” he said. “I have no problem with it.”

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