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Brooksville antidrug teacher appeals dismissal for marijuana use

Mike Provost always warned his students about drug dangers. Now, because of his own drug use, he may be fired.

TONY MARRERO | Times

Mike Provost always warned his students about drug dangers. Now, because of his own drug use, he may be fired.

BROOKSVILLE — When Thursdays rolled around at Parrott Middle School, the kids in the antidrug club stood out.

Members of the STAND Club — Students Taking Action, Not Drugs — wore black T-shirts with the club logo for what they called Drug Prevention Thursdays.

Club members met to come up with ways to encourage their peers to stay away from drugs. They sponsored a dance, put up a booth at the spring carnival and organized an antidrug poster contest. Anyone found to be using drugs was kicked out of the club.

Michael Provost, the head of the physical education department and the school's health teacher, led the STAND Club for two years. The teacher, in his early 30s when hired at Parrott in 2003, also headed up the school's DARE drug-prevention program for a few years.

In health class, Provost taught lessons with titles like "Drugs: Impact on the Brain and Body." He also had a penchant for putting down the textbook and picking up a guitar, strumming and singing to spread a health-conscious message.

"I was the hero," Provost, 37, recalled in a recent interview. "Everybody loved Mr. Provost."

Now the beloved teacher who warned students about the dangers of drugs waits to find out if he will be fired for using them.

• • •

When confronted in March by school officials acting on a tip, Provost admitted that he had occasionally smoked marijuana. A drug test came back positive.

Superintendent Wayne Alexander recommended to the School Board that Provost be fired.

Provost appealed and in June got a hearing in front of an administrative law judge. Lawyers on both sides have submitted their recommendations, and the judge could rule any day on the merits of the case. The School Board will then base its decision on that ruling.

Provost does not face criminal charges. He has no criminal history in Florida, records show.

Provost and his attorney, Mark Herdman of Clearwater, argue that the district didn't have "reasonable suspicion," as defined by law, to make him take a drug test.

They argue that firing him for a first offense is too harsh and — according to Herdman's interpretation of state law — illegal.

"I screwed up," Provost said. "I understand there needs to be consequences. I just feel they could have taken it easier on me. Instead, they raked me over the coals."

The punishment is just, said School Board attorney Paul Carland.

"He was the teacher responsible for teaching students about drug abstinence and the problems of drug abuse," Carland said. "If anyone should have known that he should have gotten help before it got to this point, he should."

• • •

Parrott principal Leechelle Booker got the call on March 11.

A woman named Michelle said she witnessed a teacher at Booker's school smoking marijuana off campus on a weekend. His name was Mike, and his fiancee was there at the time, Michelle said, according to transcripts of Provost's hearing.

Booker conferred with her assistant principals. She testified during Provost's hearing that his recent money troubles and regular requests to leave during planning period were suspicious and helped them decide they had reasonable suspicion to require a drug test. "I had to act on it," Booker said at the hearing.

She called Provost to her office and told him about the call. He would have to take a test, she said. Provost consulted with his union representative and decided to admit his drug use.

Under cross-examination at the administrative hearing, Herdman asked Booker a succession of questions: Do you know Michelle's last name? Where Michelle lives? What relationship she has to Provost? Where she allegedly saw Provost smoking? Which "weekend" it was?

Booker answered no to all of them.

"As you sit here today, do you have any idea who Michelle is?" he asked Booker.

No, Booker replied.

Herdman took the same approach with Heather Martin, the district's executive director of business services, who also talked to Michelle and who would later recommend to Alexander that Provost be fired. The woman had asked to remain anonymous, and never gave her last name.

The district has a policy not to follow up on anonymous complaints, so officials should have never confronted Provost, Herdman writes in his recommendation to the judge.

Further, Provost's admission that he was using drugs and his request for counseling through the district's employee assistance program were voluntary, Herdman argues.

"Under the policy, no discipline action is taken when employees self-refer or when they volunteer that they have a drug or alcohol problem, and they are referred to EAP by a manager," Herdman wrote.

Carland, in his recommendation to the judge, disagrees.

The tipster Michelle left a name and phone number and knew details about Provost that made her a credible source, Carland said. And Provost wasn't volunteering for help, because "his request came only after he had been confronted with the allegations of his drug use," Carland wrote.

There is at least one more key legal point on which the two sides disagree.

Herdman, who didn't return calls from the St. Petersburg Times, argues that school boards as employers fall under Florida's Drug Free Workplace Act, which holds that an employee cannot be disciplined for a first positive drug test.

Carland contends that the school district drug-free policy applies. It states that a violation "will lead to disciplinary sanctions up to and including termination of employment and prosecution."

During the hearing, Provost said that an extended family member with a grudge who knew he smoked marijuana encouraged someone else to make the call and fabricate a story.

He also explained why he decided to admit to his drug use, which he characterized as recreational — "a couple of times a week" in the months leading up to March.

"It was a wakeup call," Provost said. "I wasn't trying to manipulate anything. I was trying to be honest. I wanted to do the right thing."

• • •

A standout athlete at Lecanto High School in Citrus County, Provost nearly earned an engineering degree from Valdosta State University in Georgia.

He figured the field would be lucrative, but he wasn't having much fun. Then someone asked him what he would do "if all jobs paid the same."

"I went the next day and changed my major to physical education," he recalls.

Provost started with the Hernando district in 2002. His personnel file is filled with positive evaluations, all of them a few points away from the "outstanding" category. "Excited about what he teaches," reads one comment from 2006.

In 2007, an eighth-grade student wrote a letter to school administrators nominating Provost for teacher of the year, noting his dedication to the STAND Club.

"I believe straight from the heart that Mr. Provost has made a difference in the lives of all … he comes in contact with," the student wrote.

But there are a few blemishes. In a 2007 incident that came up in the hearing, the district found that a student had confided in Provost that he was using marijuana and cocaine; Provost did not report that to administrators or the child's guardians in a timely manner.

He was suspended for 10 days without pay, given a written reprimand, and was removed as the STAND sponsor. Provost maintains that he did report the incident to Booker, but didn't fight the charges at the time because he didn't want to lose his job.

In another incident, school officials found that Provost told students that if it weren't for the threat of pregnancy and disease, he would tell them to go out and have sex. He was given a written warning. Provost says that was taken out of context.

Martin said during Provost's hearing that she took the prior disciplinary action into account when she recommended termination.

"They made me out to be a dirt-bag teacher," Provost said of the hearing. "Heather Martin, Paul Carland and Wayne Alexander have never stepped foot in my classroom."

• • •

On Thursday, Provost sat at the kitchen table of the Homosassa ranch home he designed. It was the recently completed home, he said, that took so much of his money and salary — the reasons he had to leave school early and fret over money the last couple of years.

Bikes, Big Wheels and scooters littered the driveway. His 4-year-old son sat in front of a Spider-Man video game in the living room. His 6-year-old son played on the computer in a bedroom.

Provost says he hasn't smoked marijuana since a few days before he was confronted.

He's been on unpaid suspension since April. He tended bar for a while, a job he says he hated. He ran four fireworks stands leading up to the Independence Day holiday. He says he's burning through savings and has resorted to selling some of his musical equipment.

He married last month, and his wife recently got a job teaching in Citrus County. "She's been my crutch and my support," he said.

He said officials with the state Department of Education have indicated he likely won't lose his teaching certificate. Probably a fine, he's been told — maybe probation that includes drug tests.

If he's fired, Provost says, he will likely try another profession because he doubts he will be able to find another teaching job. He hopes it doesn't come to that.

"I've spent a lot of time thinking about my role as a teacher," he said. "It comes back to the same thing. I chose it because I was good at it. I've inspired a lot of kids' lives."

But he said he deserves the label that Carland gave him during the hearing: hypocrite.

"I want to apologize to my students," he said. "I let them down. If I do my lose my job, I'll let that be my last lesson to them."

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Tony Marrero can be reached at tmarrero@sptimes.com or (352) 848-1431.

Brooksville antidrug teacher appeals dismissal for marijuana use 08/08/09 [Last modified: Saturday, August 8, 2009 1:35pm]

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