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Jewish World Review April 10, 2000 /5 Nissan, 5760

Nat Hentoff

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Teacher brings Constitution to life -- IN 40 YEARS of traveling around the country, speaking at high schools and middle schools on the Bill of Rights and the rest of the Constitution, I have found only a few teachers who can bring the words off the page and into the lives of their students.

One of the most passionately knowledgeable of those teachers is Sherry Hearn. Voted Teacher of the Year at Windsor Forest High School in Savannah, Ga., she has taught social studies and constitutional law there for 27 years.

As at many schools in the nation, Windsor Forest students are occasionally subject without warning to dragnet raids by the police, who herd the students into the hallways and use dogs to sniff the students, their purses and their book bags. Metal detectors are used to scan students' bodies. The students are locked into the building for two to three hours while the police perform the search.

Contrary to the specific words of the Fourth Amendment to the Bill of Rights, the searches are conducted without any particular information that any student has used or is using drugs. All of them are presumed guilty of possessing drugs or weapons unless a police dog or metal detector exonerates them.

Sherry Hearn taught her students for years about how the Fourth amendment came into being because of the privacy abuses suffered by American colonists due to the sweeping searches and seizures performed by British troops. During one of these police sweeps on her school, a student asked her why she was so angry at the raid.

"Because I believe in the Constitution," she said.

A policeman overheard her, reported her to the principal and said she should be watched during the next lockdown. At the next dragnet search, the police also searched the teachers' cars in the parking lot in violation of a school policy that teachers' cars could not be searched without the consent of their owners. Hearn was not asked for her consent.

A police dog found that morning half of a hand-rolled marijuana cigarette in an ashtray in her car. It was still warm. Sherry Hearn had been in the school the entire morning. That night, a caller on the county's Silent Witness line said that the cigarette had been planted in the car. He did not give his identity. The cigarette was never produced as evidence because, a police officer said, it had "crumbled" during the search and no residue was kept.

According to school policy, Hearn was told she had to take a drug test within two hours of being informed that an illegal substance had been found in her car. She had no record at all of previous drug use, and the principal, Linda Herman, later testified that the teacher had not exhibited on the day of the search, or on any other day, the characteristic behavior that would have given rise to a "reasonable suspicion" that the marijuana cigarette was hers.

On that day, however, Hearn was given her Miranda warnings and was ordered to take a urine test in two hours. She wanted to contact her lawyer before taking the test, but he was unavailable that day. Not having legal advice, she refused. She also said, "How can I face my students after I've consistently told them that these mass drug searches violate their constitutional rights?"

The next day, having spoken to her attorney, she underwent a urinalysis, and it proved negative for marijuana or any other controlled substance.

(The active ingredients in marijuana can be found in the body of a casual user for up to 30 days, and up to a year in the body of a chronic user.)

No criminal charges were ever filed against Sherry Hearn, but she was fired in the spring of 1996 for not having taken the urine test within the two hours set forth in the school's policy. She has had great difficulty getting a teaching job since losing her job, and has lost her appeals to the Georgia State Board of Education and in the lower federal courts.

Sherry Hearn's last chance to get back to teaching constitutional law to students rests with the United States Supreme Court. As the Atlanta Constitution has said about her case, "This is not about drugs. This is about the fundamental freedoms guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution."

Her attorneys, including a lawyer for the Rutherford Institute, are asking the Supreme Court to decide whether "public school students and teachers have the right to be free from suspicionless mass drug searches on campus" and whether "Hearn should have been ordered to take a drug test based on alleged contraband that was illegally seized."

It's up to the Supreme Court to tell Sherry Hearn's students -- and other young Americans throughout the land -- whether she was right in advising students "Never, ever give up your rights that people have paid for in blood just because it's the easy thing to do."

JWR contributor Nat Hentoff is a First Amendment authority and author of numerous books. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


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