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Felony DUI is embarrassing but not a disqualifier

PORT RICHEY — A Pasco County sheriff's sergeant was patrolling U.S. 19 at 1:30 a.m. on a Monday when he clocked two women in a blue Toyota pickup at near 90 mph.

The preschool workers appeared drunk, and they gave deputies each other's last names, the report said. The driver refused the breath test.

Lisa Marie Astl's fourth DUI arrest since 1995 earned a felony designation reserved for repeat offenders.

But as far as the state was concerned, the 38-year-old teacher could keep her job at Hand In Hand Academy in Lutz.

Any discipline would be up to school leaders.

In this case, however, the woman riding shotgun was 41-year-old Wendy Viles Alexander, Astl's boss and Hand In Hand's founder. Deputies charged her with a misdemeanor, giving false information to a law enforcement officer. It was her first arrest, state records show.

Contacted later, neither woman would discuss the Oct. 26 incident with the St. Petersburg Times. Both questioned why it was newsworthy. Alexander said parents had been supportive, and everyone had moved on.

• • •

Florida has a long list of offenses that bar people from jobs in child care centers unless they seek exemptions from the state Department of Children and Families.

Absent from the list is felony drunken driving, which a person gets after two DUI convictions within 10 years.

"Other than bad PR, there is no consequence," said Dave McGerald, CEO of the Early Learning Coalition of Hillsborough County. The nonprofit oversees voluntary prekindergarten programs, including one at Hand In Hand, which gets state funding.

Nick Cox, DCF's regional director, said he was unaware until a Times reporter called that felony DUIs weren't disqualifying offenses. He said he later expressed concern to DCF Secretary George Sheldon.

"We are absolutely going to close that loophole," Cox said.

State officials have been meeting for months to discuss overhauling legislation that governs how background screenings and exemptions are handled.

A lawmaker involved in those discussions agreed that repeat DUIs warrant further study.

"If it were one DUI and they went through some sort of treatment program, we should continue to allow them to work," said state Rep. Ari Porth, D-Coral Springs. "But if it were more than one, it would be problematic."

• • •

Hand In Hand Academy, which opened in 2002 and started a second campus in 2007, enjoys a strong academic reputation. A Times review of licensing records found no problems. Staff bios list several former public school teachers with advanced degrees, and the school motto is "Advanced Education for the Formative Years of Development."

Records show the voluntary prekindergarten program scored 298 out of a possible 300 points in an evaluation of student readiness for kindergarten. Yearly tuition ranges from $4,437 for toddlers attending five half-days a week to $7,907 for kids in kindergarten through third grade.

The school Web site says Astl has taught at Hand In Hand since its founding in 2002 and "last year made the transition to lead teacher."

• • •

Cox said a pattern of drunken driving arrests shouldn't automatically disqualify someone from working with children but merits an examination by regulators.

"While we want to give people a second chance, our first and foremost concern has to be the safety of kids," he said.

The position drew praise from child care and anti-drunken driving advocates.

"We expect people who work with children and the elderly to think safety first on a routine basis in their professional and personal lives," said Kristen Allen, victim services manager for Florida's Mothers Against Drunk Driving.

Betsy Kier, assistant executive director of the Pasco Hernando Early Learning Coalition and a former child care administrator, wonders how many DUI arrests stay under the radar.

"It certainly wouldn't surprise me if it doesn't happen more frequently and the information doesn't make it to those of us who should know," she said.

"This definitely needs to be changed."

Times researchers John Martin and Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Lisa Buie can be reached at buie@sptimes.com or (813) 909-4604.

Felony DUI is embarrassing but not a disqualifier 12/12/09 [Last modified: Sunday, December 13, 2009 12:38pm]
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