Before Mike Hickman was named Belleview High School’s student services manager, he served in the U.S. Marine Corps during Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm in the early 1990s.
Little did the aspiring assistant principal know that he would have to wage another battle, nearly 30 years later, to protect his name and livelihood.
On Tuesday, the School Board upheld the firing of Hickman, 50, after he tested positive for marijuana that he was legally prescribed to help with post-traumatic stress disorder.
The story began on Nov. 5, when Hickman injured his shoulder at Belleview High while breaking up a student fight. He went to the district’s worker compensation doctor, who is required to administer a urinalysis as part of the treatment.
The doctor reported to the School District that Hickman tested positive for cannabinoids, which is a violation of the school system’s zero tolerance alcohol and drug-free workplace policy, as established by the School Board.
Hickman was devastated when he learned Superintendent of Schools Heidi Maier recommended his firing, he said Wednesday morning. After all, he just spent $10,000 to obtain a master’s degree to enter the assistant principal’s hiring pool with aspirations of one day becoming a principal.
Hickman’s attorney, Mark Herdman of Clearwater, wrote in a letter to the School District that Hickman seeks a hearing to protest his firing. That hearing will likely be heard by an administrative law judge.
The School Board, which used to conduct nearly all of the employee hearings, agreed last year to send most cases out to an impartial judge. That’s because when the board holds the hearing, it plays the role of both judge and jury. An administrative law judge issues recommendations to the board, which makes the final decision on the cases.
Herdman’s letter states that Hickman is a combat veteran who, as a result of his military service, was diagnosed with PTSD.
“To alleviate the effects of PTSD, (Hickman) was prescribed medical marijuana by a licensed physician in accordance with the laws of the State of Florida,” Herdman wrote.
Herdman added that Hickman’s “use of the legally prescribed medication had no effect on his ability to perform his job duties and responsibilities.”
“His actions do not constitute misconduct in office and do not provide just cause for discipline,” he continued.
Until at least his hearing, Hickman has no income. Hickman said he was told that it could take eight months or longer before his hearing will be scheduled.
“I have no job,” said Hickman, adding that his plan was to retire with a decent pension earned during military service and his time with the district. “I can no longer work in the School District.”
Medical marijuana has become a controversial subject for many states, like Florida, where voters approved the drug for all kinds of ailments, from cancer to anxiety.
Because marijuana is still considered illegal by the federal government, even if states have legalized it, many government agencies fear losing federal funding unless they have zero-tolerance drug-free workplace policies.
Even in states that have legalized marijuana, legal marijuana suppliers can’t use federally insured banks, which must abide by strict rules in regards to money earned from drugs.
Though medical marijuana is legal in Florida, the state law is clear that companies have the right to have zero tolerance drug-free workplace policies.
Statute 381.986 states that the law does not “limit the ability of an employer to establish, continue, or enforce a drug-free workplace program or policy.”
“This section does not require an employer to accommodate the medical use of marijuana in any workplace or any employee working while under the influence of marijuana,” the statute reads. “This section does not create a cause of action against an employer for wrongful discharge or discrimination.”
“It is an interesting scenario because you have an employee who is being disciplined for something that is not necessarily against state law but it is against federal law,” said Kevin Christian, School District spokesman. “So it puts the School District in a very jeopardized position of losing millions of federal dollars if we allowed this, period.”
Christian said the district “has a zero tolerance policy when it comes to drugs and alcohol.”
Mark Avery, president of the local teacher’s union, said Hickman was fired for doing something that is legal in the state of Florida. Avery added that Hickman’s medical marijuana usage occurred only at home and never at work.
“I understand that there is federal funding that could be taken, but we do not have any precedent that such funding has ever been taken,” Avery said. “That is the excuse the School Board uses, and the district uses.”
Avery said he believes the board should have pulled Maier’s request from the agenda of Tuesday’s board meeting until it could determine if the district’s drug-free policy should be tweaked. If the board had pulled the item, Hickman would still have gotten paid while the board looked closer at the issue.
In another case addressed on Tuesday, the School Board upheld Maier’s firing of Anna Lloyd, a South Ocala Elementary School teacher who was found intoxicated in her classroom, documents state.
That incident occurred on Oct. 16 when South Ocala Principal Stephanie Callaway went to Lloyd’s classroom and found that she had slurred speech and was swaying when she stood up.
The district ordered her to take a blood test and her blood/alcohol level was 0.106, which is higher than the 0.08 level at which a driver is considered impaired.
The documents also state that Lloyd did not sign her paperwork acknowledging that she had received the notice of firing. Avery said Lloyd didn’t sign the termination documents because she was immediately placed in an alcohol rehabilitation program.
“She doesn’t feel she received her due process,” said Avery, adding that there is federal case law in her favor. “The American Disabilities Act says that alcohol is a disease and they can’t just fire you for that.”
Lloyd also did not file for a hearing because she is unavailable because she is undergoing rehabilitation, Avery said.
The School Board recently passed a medical marijuana policy for students that require parents to check them out of school to administer the drug. Avery said the board needs to address the issue for employees.
“What we want is a second-chance policy,” Avery said. “Across the nation we have epidemics of these problems and we shouldn’t automatically fire them.”
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