The Knox V. Knox: Decision and Drug Testing for Public School Employees: Why Educators Do Not Shed Their Rights at the Schoolhouse Gate

By Orr, Ginger | Journal of Law and Education, October 2000 | Go to article overview

The Knox V. Knox: Decision and Drug Testing for Public School Employees: Why Educators Do Not Shed Their Rights at the Schoolhouse Gate


Orr, Ginger, Journal of Law and Education


Chalk Talk*

The Knox v. Knox1 Decision and Drug Testing for Public School Employees: Why Educators Do Not Shed Their Rights at the Schoolhouse Gate

I. Introduction

It is undisputed that educators have a profound effect on the lives of students they teach. Teachers and school administrators serve a variety of roles including those of parent, role model, and confidant. Professionals in the public education system are well-respected, trusted members of the community. Because educators play such an influential role in the lives of children, they should strive to be positive role models for those they instruct.

Teachers also have a daunting task in that they must ensure the safety of their students. Educators are often mediators of quarrels and instructors in times of emergency. With the apparent rise in school violence and student substance abuse, teachers also have to be conscious of hazardous behavior that could pose danger to their students. Because school officials have such an important responsibility, it is imperative that their physical and mental capabilities remain unimpaired while students are under their supervision.

Over the last decade, public school systems throughout the country have attempted to implement drug testing policies for educators. Most of these policies, put into place by local boards of education, have been struck down due to constitutional stumbling blocks dealing with privacy concerns. This article discusses the importance of drug testing policies for educators by analyzing the recent Sixth Circuit Court of Appeal's decision in Knox v. Knox.2 The second part of this article lays the factual foundation of the Knox case and discusses Fourth Amendment issues as well as the Sixth Circuit's opinion. The article concludes by discussing the impact Knox will have on future drug-testing policies adopted by boards of education.

11. Background

In December of 1989, without evidence of a pronounced drug or alcohol problem among its teachers, the Knox County, Tennessee, Board of Education adopted what it called the "Drug Free Workplace Policy."3 The policy called for pre-employment drug and alcohol screening of job applicants and reasonable-suspicion testing for current employees. The board amended its initial policy in 1991 to provide greater protection for the privacy rights of employees shortly after the Knox County Board of Education and the Knox County Educational Association sought a preliminary injunction against its enforcement. The injunction was based on the theory that the policy violated the Fourth Amendment's protection of privacy issues. The Federal District Court for the Eastern District of Tennessee subsequently enjoined the enforcement of the amended policy. The board amended its policy again in 1992 to require all candidates for employment to submit to a urinalysis as a precondition to being hired. Pursuant to the reasonable-suspicion provision, any school employee was subject to such testing if the director of personnel believed the employee was under the influence of drugs or alcohol while on duty.4

The district court handed down its decision, known as Knox I, in 1994.5 The court found the pre-employment screening provision unconstitutional because it did not sufficiently describe the methods or procedures to be used in testing applicants. The provision also failed to adequately ensure protections for the privacy of individuals tested. The court decided to divide school employees into two groups. The first group included principals, assistant principals, teachers, traveling teachers, teachers aides, and school secretaries. Employees in this group were considered to have "safety-sensitive" positions, meaning that any lapse in their attention or judgment could immediately place the children under their care at risk for serious harm.6

The second group included superintendents, assistant superintendents, and clerks. The court found that members of this group did not occupy safety sensitive positions. …

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