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Hernando middle school teacher suspended after officials say she was drunk on the job

BROOKSVILLE — A West Hernando Middle School language arts teacher faces the possibility of losing her job after she allegedly was at work while under the influence of alcohol last month, according to a district investigation.

On the morning of Dec. 11, Erin Ann Cougill, a 14-year veteran in the Hernando County School District, showed signs of impairment, including slurred speech, dilated pupils, unsteadiness and incoherent conversation, according to the district's investigation. Multiple people at the school, including teachers, the assistant principal and a sheriff's deputy, observed the behavior.

About 10:25 a.m., assistant principal Angela Kennedy saw Cougill walking unsteadily toward her. They began speaking, and Kennedy noticed Cougill was slurring her words and not making sense, Kennedy wrote in a report.

She then called Deputy Shane Landgraff, who observed slurring and stumbling. He first saw her leaning against a counter in a computer lab having a conversation with students that was "of a personal nature which is inappropriate."

Multiple people that morning also saw Cougill, 47, enter her classroom, go to her desk and grab a plastic cup. She then locked herself in a restroom, Kennedy wrote. She came out with an empty cup.

Cougill said it was iced tea and had no alcohol in it.

Cougill arrived on campus about 8:15 a.m. About two hours later, the administration at West Hernando called the school district's main office, and superintendent Lori Romano authorized a "reasonable suspicion" test. At 2:30 p.m., Cougill took the test, which showed positive results for alcohol — "well above the legal limit of 0.08" at which a motorist is presumed impaired in Florida, said Heather Martin, the district's executive director of business services, according to a transcript of the district's hearing for Cougill.

Cougill said she didn't have any alcohol on campus, according the hearing transcript. She said she had Scottish friends in town and they had all been drinking the previous night — Scotch whisky and two bottles of French wine. She said she doesn't metabolize alcohol well.

"I should have called (principal Carmine) Rufa and told him I wasn't coming in, but I didn't want to because of student performance," she said. "I'm humiliated and embarrassed in front of my colleagues."

Cougill said she is on nine prescription drugs, which may have contributed to her impairment. She said she also has health issues.

Cougill was suspended with pay on Dec. 12. Romano recommended her termination on Jan. 6, which Cougill is appealing.

The School Board, at its meeting on Tuesday, will vote on whether to suspend Cougill without pay and refer the matter to the state Division of Administrative Hearings, which would hear the appeal.

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

Hernando middle school teacher suspended after officials say she was drunk on the job 01/30/14 [Last modified: Thursday, January 30, 2014 7:51pm]
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