Friday, April 17, 2009

Substance Abuse - Important Court Case for Teachers

Opposing view: Safety takes precedence
Educators need wide range of tools to protect students in their care.

By Francisco Negrón

Schools have a responsibility to ensure students are safe. When it comes to preventing drug abuse, educators have to make tough, on-the-spot decisions to stem the distribution of potentially harmful substances. Next week, the Supreme Court will consider whether educators can be held personally liable for money damages for searching the person of a middle school student believed to have unauthorized prescription drugs. At issue in Safford v. Redding is whether the search was reasonable.

The wisdom of zero-tolerance policies is not at issue in the court case, and such policies are up to local communities. Working with their elected school boards and school leaders, communities should decide what strategy works best for them. Schools are some of the safest places for students because school boards have policies to prevent and eliminate the dangers of drug abuse and weapons. The real question is whether educators will be able to use a wide range of tools to ensure the safety of the students in their care. Those tools may sometimes include searches based on reasonable suspicion to look for weapons or drugs.

As the Supreme Court held in Morse v. Frederick in 2007, the danger posed by drugs to our students is "serious and palpable." Indeed, the federal government's Office of National Drug Control Policy reported just last year that prescription-drug abuse among youth is increasing at an alarming rate. And, the accessibility of over-the-counter drugs can have harmful, unintended consequences for impressionable teens and adolescents. At a time of crucial emotional and psychological development, a student can quickly fall prey to the scourge of drug abuse.

Everyone agrees that if there is no threat to students' safety, highly invasive searches are inappropriate. But, that does not mean that when they have a reasonable suspicion, educators should stop looking for harmful drugs simply because they cannot find them in a student's backpack or pockets. The more a student's conduct poses a potential safety threat to herself and others, the greater the need for educators to prevent it — for her sake and the sake of her fellow students.

Francisco Negrón is general counsel to the National School Boards Association and its Council of School Attorneys.
Posted at 12:21 AM/ET, April 17, 2009 in USA TODAY editorial | Permalink

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