Schools revise drug policy

Employees must submit to testing if suspected of substance abuse

`This is not a witch hunt'

Treatment counselors, unions helped draft rule

March 07, 2004|By Jennifer McMenamin | Jennifer McMenamin,SUN STAFF

Concerned that school principals didn't have enough authority to help staff members with drug and alcohol addictions or to keep them out of their classrooms until they complete treatment, Carroll County school officials have written new regulations that they say will give the district one of the toughest employee drug-testing programs in the state.

The guidelines, scheduled to take effect July 1, will require teachers and other staff to submit to a drug or alcohol test if their supervisors have a "reasonable suspicion" of substance abuse.

Although a positive test result would not immediately lead to termination, the staff member would be prohibited from returning to work before successfully completing a treatment program and without agreeing to up to six unannounced drug tests over 12 months.

"This is not a witch hunt. And it's not to say that we think we have a problem or we think there's an unknown problem out there," said Stephen Guthrie, the system's assistant superintendent of administration. "It's just another layer of protection for our staff and our students."

Union leaders, representing nearly 3,200 school employees, helped draft the new guidelines, which they say strike a careful balance between getting staffers help without getting them in trouble.

Under the current regulations, Guthrie said, there is very little that principals and other supervisors can do if they suspect a staff member is abusing drugs or alcohol. The school system has no policy or regulation to force employees to submit to drug testing, and without the concrete proof that such tests provide, suspicions cannot be acted upon.

In most of the four or five cases that arise each year, Guthrie said, such suspicions go no further than a principal approaching the employee and letting him know that someone had raised a concern about his behavior. But a principal sometimes talked to the same staff member several times in a single year, Guthrie said.

"I can ask a principal if it's keeping the employee from doing their job - are they unable to teach their class, operate the machinery, sweep the floor, make the breakfast food or do the typing?" he explained. "But unless they're so overtly impaired that they can't perform their job, there's not much you can do.

"Substance abuse doesn't generally work like that," he added. "It works subtly. And that ties our hands."

School officials began drafting new regulations after hearing two years ago that the Talbot County school system was starting a drug-testing program that includes pre-employment, random and reasonable-suspicion screenings.

Although the reasonable-suspicion threshold is not uncommon in private companies and local governments, Carroll school officials found that Talbot is the only school system in Maryland using the standard to require employee drug testing.

Carroll Superintendent Charles I. Ecker appointed a committee, including central office administrators, drug treatment counselors, the director of the school system's Employee Assistance Program and the leaders of all five labor unions, to examine the school system's rules. Because the resulting changes were written into the superintendent's administrative regulations rather than school board policy, they do not fall under the jurisdiction of the elected school board.

But board members - and union leaders - have praised the modifications.

"It respects not only students' need for safety with the people in our schools, but it also respects our employees' needs with a strong treatment component," board member Laura K. Rhodes said. "I'm proud to be a part of such a cutting-edge policy."

Board members will likely discuss the new regulations at their meeting Wednesday, when they are scheduled to vote on a rewritten policy on maintaining a drug-free workplace.

Under the superintendent's new regulations, supervisors must document a pattern of behavior - such as frequent absences or illnesses, outbursts, slurred speech and an unsteady gait - that backs up their "reasonable suspicion" of staff drug or alcohol abuse.

"It's not a one-shot deal," said James Doolan, the school district's transportation services director and committee chairman. "We're looking for patterns of uncharacteristic, irate and unreasonable behavior over a period of time."

The supervisor then will summon the employee for a conference and escort him or her to a licensed testing center within two hours.

Employees with negative test results will be permitted to return to work immediately. Those who test positive - or who refuse a test - will be referred for mandatory treatment and could be suspended or fired.

But such disciplinary action is not automatic after a first offense.

"There may be extenuating circumstances you want to consider," Doolan said, suggesting as an example a longtime employee who becomes addicted to painkillers after surgery. "That doesn't mean they're a bad person. If we can get them help to get them back to where they've always been, we'll have a great employee."

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