The tragic school violence in Parkland, Florida, has moved many people across the country to activism, which has included planning school walkouts. The dates that have been considered nationally are March 14 (when most Texas districts are out on spring break), March 24 (a Saturday), and April 20 (a Friday and the 19th anniversary of the Columbine school shooting).
Students and educators can make individual decisions regarding participation on a non-school day, and the First Amendment right to free speech would likely protect their actions. We want you to know, though, that a professional educator can risk serious consequences if he or she engages in a work stoppage, even if it is for a worthy cause.
The state legislature has banned strikes for public employees, including educators. A public employee who strikes or engages in an organized work stoppage, such as an interruption or cancellation of the school day, “forfeits all civil service rights, reemployment rights, and any other rights, benefits, and privileges the employee enjoys as a result of public employment” (Tex. Govt. Code Section 617.003). While this provision does not specifically refer to TRS retirement benefits, ATPE has long been concerned that participating in an organized work stoppage could put these benefits that educators have “as a result of public employment” at risk.
A teacher who walks out of the classroom and violates any directive from the school administration also faces the risk of negative employment consequences, including termination. Additionally, a teacher could be placing their certification at risk because they would be violating the law.
We recommend that educators check with campus administration about how to handle a student walkout as soon as possible. As an educator, you want to have a plan to keep your kids safe, whether they stay in the classroom or not. And you will want to know the expectations in order to avoid negative employment action. You may be directed to leave with students, monitoring them to ensure safety, or you may be asked to remain in the classroom. In either case, if you are following a directive, you are working and so are not participating in a work stoppage; thus, you should not experience negative action.
We are all one voice in condemning school violence. We do not want this tragedy compounded by well-meaning educators suffering individual consequences because of their convictions.
ATPE members who have legal questions should contact ATPE’s Member Legal Services Department via our online system or at (800) 777-2873.