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District: Teacher faces dismissal for being drunk in school

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Published:   |   Updated: January 30, 2014 at 06:51 PM

BROOKSVILLE - It was around 10 a.m. when West Hernando Middle School teacher Erin Cougill staggered down a hallway with dilated pupils and struck up a conversation with an assistant principal, according to a school district investigation.

"Her conversation was not coherent," Assistant Principal Angela Kennedy wrote regarding the Dec. 11 incident, noting Cougill, 47, was slurring her words. "I immediately called the deputy."

Before School Resource Officer Deputy Shane Landgraff reached Cougill's classroom, a teacher and another employee approached Kennedy with concerns that Cougill might be under the influence of something, according to a district investigation.

When Landgraff arrived at Cougill's classroom, she was leaning against a counter talking with students, the investigation shows.

"Her conversation was that of a personal nature which is inappropriate," Landgraff reported.

Red-faced and glassy-eyed, she acknowledged him and, with delayed speech, asked if he was there to arrest someone, the investigation shows. Landgraff told her he wasn't, he reported.

"Darn," she said, according to Landgraff's report.

Moments later, Cougill was in Kennedy's office turning in her badge and keys, the investigation showed.

She said she was "done," and a blood alcohol test she submitted later that day showed she was well above the legal limit of .08, according to the investigation.

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Following the district's investigation, School Superintendent Lori Romano recommended Cougill be fired from her job as a language arts teacher at the middle school. The school board will decide whether to approve the superintendent's recommendation at their meeting this coming Tuesday.

Cougill teaches grades 6-8 and has been at West Hernando Middle 11 years. She has been with the district for 14 years, having previously taught at Central High School.

On the day of the incident, after Cougill announced she was quitting, she left Kennedy's office and went back to her classroom, according to the investigation.

"She was observed to be crying while walking on the campus," said Jill Kolasa, an Assistant Principal at Central High School, who arrived to offer assistance.

Cougill went to her desk, grabbed a plastic cup with unknown contents, and locked herself in the restroom, the investigation shows.

"We heard the commode flush, and she emerged with an empty cup," Kennedy reported. "I observed that the restroom smelled of alcohol."

Cougill's union representative arrived and explained to Cougill her options, which included the blood alcohol test at a nearby clinic, the report shows.

"Cougill continued to demonstrate extremely erratic behavior accompanied by yelling and crying," Kolasa reported. "(She) waffled between going to get the requested tests done or to leave campus."

After repeated, unsuccessful attempts to get Cougill to hand over her car keys, her union representative took the keys from her, the investigation shows.

She was escorted to Suncoast Urgent Care, where they rendezvoused with school principal Carmine Rufa, the report shows. Cougill was suspended with pay until the test results were released, according to the investigation.

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School and district-based administrators, union and legal staff, and Cougill sat around a table at the district office during a Dec. 20 pre-determination meeting.

"What happened prior to going to the lab?" asked Heather Martin, executive director of business services, according to the report.

"I had made the decision to resign. I was getting my stuff together," Cougill reportedly said. "I know that dumping my tea is an issue but there was no alcohol in it."

Cougill said the night before the Dec. 11 incident she was drinking whiskey and wine with some friends from out of town, and stopped drinking around midnight, according to the report.

"I think the fact that I'm on nine prescription drugs was part of the impairment," she said, adding that she decided at the clinic she did not want to resign.

Cougill said she should have called work that morning, to tell them she could not work.

"Are you aware that the lab supervisor called me because you were so disruptive to their operation and other patients that he was going to ask you to leave?" Martin said. "It took you three hours from the time the test was authorized to finally take the test . six hours ... after you reported to work, the results were positive for alcohol. In fact, the results are . well above the legal limit of .08."

Cougill concluded the meeting by saying being with her students, and watching them learn is her passion, and that she is a good teacher who hopes the district will take into consideration her medical conditions as they determine the appropriate discipline, according to the investigation.

Cougill could not be reached for comment.

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