In Florida, is labor law the only thing that stops a good teacher with a gun?

  • Date:
  • August 12th, 2019

By: Courtlyn Roser-Jones

This fall, students in Florida will head back to school with legislation in place allowing districts to permit teachers to carry guns in the classroom. But labor law concerns might explain why districts aren’t adding holsters and ammunition to teachers’ supply lists anytime soon.

Florida’s new law expands the state’s Guardian Program, established in the wake of the Parkland high school shooting, by letting participating districts satisfy the armed “Safety Officer” requirement with teacher volunteers. Legislative efforts to put firearms in the hands of teachers gained popularity at the state levels last year—after President Trump, the Parkland Shooting Commission, and the Federal Commission on School Safety all endorsed the proposal. And while the “good teacher with a gun” message may have caught on with lawmakers in Florida, it’s the state’s school districts who ultimately determine program participation and whether Safety Officer requirements are met by law enforcement officers, security personnel, or volunteer teachers/staff. And most aren’t interested in volunteers.

There are plenty of legal and policy reasons why school districts don’t want any of their employees doubling as armed Safety Officer volunteers. But even the most cost-conscious, libertarian, and rural Florida districts are drawing the line at arming teachers whose duties are exclusive to the classroom. Of course, they are. School districts know that, practically speaking, the classroom is labor’s territory and a minefield they’d prefer to avoid.

The state’s federation of teachers’ unions (the Florida Education Association) and its national affiliates (the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers) have all come out against policies arming teachers. They say their members don’t want to be armed; believe guns in classrooms won’t prevent school shootings; and want state resources to go to other educational and safety initiatives.

One aspect though, has gone largely unaddressed by teachers’ unions: Whatever its wisdom, a policy allowing classroom teachers to carry firearms triggers difficult questions surrounding Florida’s public-sector labor law.

The first wave of questions concerns collective bargaining. Nearly all of Florida’s sixty-seven school districts are obligated to bargain with a certified teachers’ union before altering “terms and conditions of employment.” Likewise, even changes to school policies traditionally thought to be “managerial” and outside the mandatory bargaining requirement—such as administrative decisions affecting school systems as a whole as opposed to individual teachers’ classrooms or “well-being”—are not in the clear. Under the law, these “managerial” decisions cannot be made until districts negotiate the “impact of these policies when their impact directly affects terms and conditions of employment.

This means that before a teacher gets an hour of firearms training, implementing school districts might need to negotiate their new policy as either a direct change to the terms and conditions of employment, or at the very least, as a change that’s effects impact terms and conditions of employment.

Legally, no one knows for sure yet what these negotiation requirements are. In instances like these—where a policy matter has elements of both a district’s managerial prerogative (i.e., building safety procedures), and employment conditions (i.e., individual classroom environments and teachers’ welfare when firearms are added)—Florida’s Public Employees Relations Commission and the courts make case-by-case determinations of the negotiation requirements. They do so by employing a balancing test of teachers’, the district’s, and the public’s interests. And being that we’re in unchartered territory and there are no prior decisions to rely upon, school districts risk spending considerable time and resources resolving a labor dispute that, at best, ends in a small victory—avoiding bargaining without violating the law.

If a district declines to engage in “impact bargaining” over the potential effects of a policy to arm teachers, the same uncertainties are involved, only now they’re multiplied—as arguably the impact of the policy affects more than one employment condition or term. For instance, Florida’s program allots a $500 stipend to volunteers who complete initial and quarterly trainings, undergo a psychological exam, and submit to random drug testing. But will initial and periodic training count for teachers’ continuing education and professional development requirements? Or must volunteers use personal days—quantities and terms of which are negotiated and district-specific—for these? If one school has teacher-volunteers to spare, could they be transferred to a school without any volunteers, despite transfer eligibility and priority rules established in collective bargaining agreements? How about a volunteer who fails a random drug test? Could this failed test also be grounds for discipline under a collective bargaining agreement’s drug-free workplace provision?

Bargaining obligations aside, there are the uncertainties involving subsequent individual grievances, should a teacher ever actually deploy their weapon on school grounds. Union-represented teachers cannot be terminated without “just cause.” And although “just cause” determinations are also case-by-case decisions, progressive disciplinary procedures and understandings of professional norms and standards have evolved over time, such that parties generally have a good idea of when a termination is valid.

But these tradition-shaped ideas won’t help much here, given the novelty of the policy, which means lengthy grievance procedures and arbitration for districts and teachers’ unions. Might a teacher’s termination be “just” if his or her gun accidentally discharges? How about if a student or teacher is injured but the injury is caused by fallen ceiling debris? Or what if an attacker does enter a school premises and an armed teacher-volunteer freezes during the incident? Does the district have cause to terminate or discipline the teacher-volunteer for a failure to act? How about if people are injured and a teacher-volunteer is sued for their inactivity during a shooting? Could a union sustain a grievance arguing that the district must indemnify the teacher-volunteer under a contract’s liability clause covering teachers for suits arising out of the course of their duties?

If these hypotheticals sound farfetched, they aren’t. Lawsuits and criminal charges are currently pending against Scot Peterson—the armed school resource officer and county deputy on duty during the Parkland shooting—for his failure to intervene. And even Florida State Senator Manny Diaz, who sponsored the law extending the Guardian Program to classroom teachers, acknowledges that it lacks “clarity” as to whether armed teachers could also be on the hook for their actions during a shooting.

Sen. Diaz’s lack of clarity sums up just why labor law’s requirements and protections matter. It’s easy to understand why lawmakers responding to a particularly devastating tragedy rush to endorse policy changes. But the devil’s in the details when it comes to educators’ livelihood, learned profession, and maybe even freedom. That’s why employment contracts between teachers’ unions and districts are hundreds of pages long. The details. Until more of these details are worked out regarding the relation to teachers’ employment and teachers voluntarily carrying guns, don’t expect districts to go to all the trouble.