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Hernando School Board reinstates teacher who was intoxicated at work

BROOKSVILLE — Hernando County School Board member Dianne Bonfield had heard enough.

She said she couldn't reappoint a teacher who admitted to being intoxicated at work. She worried about what might have happened while that teacher was on duty, about the teacher's lack of judgment and about the message the district was sending.

She wanted her gone.

"Putting this person in charge of our students is egregious to me," she said at Tuesday's School Board meeting.

But firing a teacher accused of being inebriated on the job is far more complicated.

Faced with the possibility of losing a legal battle, and despite some lingering doubts, School Board members approved an agreement that allowed West Hernando Middle School language arts teacher Erin Cougill to keep her job.

On Dec. 11, Cougill was drunk on duty. While at school, she showed signs of impairment, including slurred speech, stumbling and incoherent conversation. There were reports of erratic behavior and having an inappropriate conversation with a student.

School administrators ordered a "reasonable suspicion" test, which showed Cougill's blood-alcohol level was well above 0.08 percent, the point at which a motorist is presumed impaired in Florida.

After a district investigation, superintendent Lori Romano recommended that Cougill be terminated.

"The district finds there is probable cause for disciplinary action," Romano wrote in a letter dated Jan. 6.

Cougill, 47, quickly appealed the decision.

Before the investigation had been completed, she said she attended two Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. She said she wanted help, according to a transcript of a Dec. 20 hearing.

"I had started soul-searching," she said. "It's been a rough five years. I've had health and personal issues."

She also said she had been taking a number of prescription pills, according to the transcript.

Cougill and her attorney could not be reached for comment last week.

Instead of pushing for Cougill's firing, Romano recommended she be suspended without pay and that the case be referred to the Division of Administrative Hearings, as directed by School Board policy.

But after consulting with legal counsel, Romano decided against even that step.

School Board attorney Dennis Alfonso explained that Cougill had made an effort to address her issues prior to the conclusion of the investigation, though he declined to comment on specific steps she took, citing confidentiality reasons.

Historically, Alfonso said, administrative judges have looked very favorably on employees who have made a good-faith effort to improve. In cases involving some mitigating factors, the judge will often find there isn't "just cause" and rule against the district, he said.

"(The Division of Administrative Hearings) is not always as affected by a violation of policy," he said. "They're a bit more forgiving than a board is. On a whole, they're more in favor of giving an employee a second chance than the board would be."

Alfonso told board members it's not a question of whether the board has the authority to punish the teacher, but rather a matter of "whether it would be a prudent investment of time and money" to do so.

"How much money is the board willing to expend on the possibility of an adverse result?" he asked the board. "It's a cost-value assessment."

The board, heeding the advice of counsel, voted 4-1 to accept the superintendent's recommendation that allows for Cougill to stay with the district.

In return, Cougill agreed to be evaluated by an addiction or abuse expert and to complete any programs or requirements recommended by the expert. She also agreed to random drug or alcohol tests for the 2014-2015 school year and acknowledged the district can take future action following the findings of the state's Education Practices Commission.

"I know it doesn't make you feel great, but it should make you feel better," board member Matt Foreman told Bonfield.

The discussion about Cougill was unusual for a board that typically approves the superintendent's personnel recommendations without comment.

Bonfield was the most adamant that the district not keep a teacher under these circumstances.

"I find this absurd," she said, repeating the last word for emphasis. "I cannot and will not reinstate an employee who is under the influence of alcohol while on duty as a teacher in our district."

Foreman, a lawyer, gave Cougill credit for admitting to the allegations and agreeing to certain conditions.

But he added a more cautious note.

"I don't particularly care for the precedent this sets," he said. "I think as a matter of public policy, it is a bad precedent to set."

Danny Valentine can be reached at dvalentine@tampabay.com or (352) 848-1432. On Twitter: @HernandoTimes.

Hernando School Board reinstates teacher who was intoxicated at work 06/13/14 [Last modified: Saturday, June 14, 2014 9:21pm]
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