A Florida high school dean — a combat military veteran suspended after testing positive for medical marijuana — was fired by the Marion County School Board on Wednesday after a lengthy discussion.
Mike Hickman, a Belleview High School dean, faced a hearing after the board asked an administrative law judge to hear the case and issue a recommendation.
Judge Suzanne Van Wyk, of the state Division of Administrative Hearings in Tallahassee, issued an order a few months ago that upholds the decision of former Superintendent of Schools Heidi Maier to fire Hickman.
However, the judge also stated in the order that the school board could choose suspension instead.
For more than an hour on Wednesday, the school board debated ways to handle punishment for Hickman. Board members were concerned that they would set a dangerous precedent if they allowed Hickman to continue working after violating school policy.
The board debated issuing Hickman a 20-day or more suspension without pay if he agreed to no longer use medical marijuana. Such usage is a violation of Marion County Public Schools’ drug-free workplace policy.
Board member Nancy Stacy, Hickman’s biggest advocate, said that the board itself failed Hickman by not updating school board policy to make it clear that medical marijuana is deemed illegal under federal law and that usage would be a violation.
In November 2019, Hickman broke up a fight at Belleview High. During that fight he was injured and had to report to a worker compensation doctor for treatment. During that visit he tested positive for marijuana.
When Hickman was asked whether he would stop using medical marijuana if he was given a suspension, he said “no,” adding that the medical marijuana helps him with pain suffered from years of surgeries stemming from combat wounds.
When Hickman did not agree to stop using medical marijuana, Stacy sided with the rest of the board, voting 5-0 to fire him. Hickman said he did not have a comment, though his Clearwater attorney, Mark Herdman, did.
“It is just another unfortunate decision handed down by the Marion County School Board to fire yet another good employee,” Herdman said.
Moments after the decision, a representative from the local teachers’ union, the Marion Education Association, sent the Star-Banner a text comment.
“Imagine if this employee just sat back and let the two students continue to fight without regard for their safety, we wouldn’t be here right now,” said Chris Altobello, an executive director who represents both the teachers and support personnel unions.
“Or if we were, it would have been for not intervening,” he continued. “He was no more impaired than someone who took an aspirin for a headache. They implied that this is tantamount to smoking pot in the boys bathroom!”
Maier filed a complaint in January seeking to fire Hickman. He requested a hearing. At first, the School Board suspended him without pay. Two weeks later it decided to change that to suspension with pay pending a hearing.
The district has maintained that marijuana use is against federal law and that if the district didn’t act, then it could lose federal funding. Also, board policy states that an employee should inform their supervisor if prescribed medical marijuana.
“At no time prior to his positive drug screen did (Hickman) notify his supervisor that he was using medical marijuana,” according to the administrative law judge’s ruling. “(Hickman) has been employed by the Board since 2010.”
Wyk wrote in her opinion that that the school board should enter a final order upholding the charges against Hickman, or impose other discipline consistent with Florida Administrative Code.
Wyk noted in her eight-page decision that Hickman argued that it is unfair that he is being penalized for use of medical marijuana to treat chronic pain, but would be allowed “to continue teaching under the influence of opioid pain medications, which he took for years prior to the availability of medical marijuana.”
“The undersigned notes that the remedy of suspension is also available under the applicable rule,” the ruling noted.
Diane Gullett, Marion’s current school superintendent, stands by Maier’s decision. Mark Levitt, a Winter Park attorney who represents the superintendent in employee hearings, asked the school board during the hearing not to let Hickman’s military service cloud the issue, adding that “we appreciate his service.”
Though medical marijuana is now legal in Florida, the state Legislature made it clear that doesn’t mean employees can go to work under the influence, Levitt noted. He said the board needs to uphold its policy.
“He was given the opportunity to stop using it (medical marijuana),” said Levitt of the district’s attempted resolution. Hickman did not agree in earlier conversations to stop and is in violation of the school board’s drug-free workplace policy.
Herdman said that his client does not need sympathy. He was using medical marijuana to help with a combat injury suffered while serving in the military.
“This is your call,” Herdman said, adding that the board should not fear losing federal funding because it allow an employee to use medical marijuana, which is deemed illegal by the federal government.
Herdman also noted that many employees, including Hickman at first, use opioids for different types of chronic pain. The board policy states that opioids are on the list of illegal drugs in the district’s decades-old policy.
Herdman said the board should not automatically fire an employee and every case should be reviewed on its own merits. Herdman asked the board to look at Hickman’s 20 years of service to the school district and his military record, and said it can exercise its judgment in every case that comes before them.
In the end, board members Kelly King and Beth McCall, along with Vice Chairwoman Nancy Thrower and Chairman Eric Cummings, felt that it was a precedent that they could not set.
For example, if they did not act against Hickman, would employees in areas, such as transportation, be allowed to begin using medical marijuana?
The district did recently pass a medical marijuana policy for students. That policy allows parents to check their child out of school and administer the recommended dose in their car in the parking lot. But the district employee policy is a zero-tolerance.
The board agreed it needs to tweak its policy and make it clear that medical marijuana is not allowed by staff.
(c) 2020 the Ocala Star-Banner
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.