Does it make sense for a school district to use polygraph tests to get to the truth in employee disputes and conflicts?
Cobb plans to do so. The school board amended its discipline policy to say employees who refuse to take the exam could be fired. The district, the state’s second largest, is the only major school district in metro Atlanta that uses polygraph tests to try to determine whether a person is lying.
There is a great deal of controversy around the reliability of polygraph tests, which is contributing to concerns about Cobb’s policy.
Although administrators insist they rarely use polygraph tests, teacher advocates say that could change at any time and that they object to the test being used at all. “I don’t think [polygraph tests] are reliable, dependable or accurate,” said Connie Jackson, the president of Cobb County Association of Educators. “I think [their use is] horrible and unconscionable.”
Administrators say the tests are used in “he-said-she-said” cases, such as allegations of sexual molestation or theft, where there are few witnesses.
“We use it very sparingly and only in the most serious occasions,” said Mary Finlayson, who heads the district’s professional standards and ethics office. “We have to do everything within our power to get to the truth, and the polygraph is a tool for that.”
Some Cobb residents think the tests’ use can help teachers.
“What about some of the teachers where the students lie to get a teacher fired?” said Karyn Harrison, a former South Cobb PTA member. “If it’s going to get to the truth faster, it’ll save hours of time investigating and money.”
The tests, which cost up to $150, measure breathing, blood pressure and perspiration while a person answers a list of questions. Polygraph tests are allowed under federal law for public employees as long as they aren’t used as a sole basis to fire the person, the questions are tailored to the investigation and the employees understand that they aren’t waiving their fifth amendment rights by taking the test.
The tests are only admissible in state courts when both sides agree. The tests are largely seen as unreliable, said Steve Sadow, an Atlanta criminal defense attorney.
Several experts have questioned their accuracy and the legitimacy of examiners in recent years.
Georgia’s Professional Standards Commission rarely consider polygraph tests when considering whether to revoke a teacher’s license, said Paul Shaw, the commission’s director of educator ethics. Their office can’t afford them, and they’re often unreliable, he said.
“We just don’t see the need for them,” he said.
–From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog