BROOKSVILLE — Erin Cougill, the West Hernando Middle School teacher who made headlines after showing up drunk at school in December, will be back in the classroom next year, pending evaluations of an addiction expert.
A split Hernando County School Board on June 10 approved the agreement with Cougill, which was recommended by Schools Superintendent Lori Romano, who previously recommended her termination.
Cougill will have a job in the 2014-15 school year if the addiction expert states that she has met requirements of a substance-abuse or addiction program no later than Aug. 1.
Cougill was suspended without pay after the Dec. 11 incident, when she admitted that she went to school under the influence of alcohol.
The recommendation by Romano didn’t sit well with some school board members.
“I followed this case from the onset,” School Board Vice Chair Dianne Bonfield said. “The infraction is definitely a violation of our school board policy. This employee, from all indications, made some very poor choices that could have jeopardized the students in her charge.
“First thing is that she came to work at all that day, appearing to be impaired. She came to school, drove to school, again, being impaired. That could have presented a very dangerous situation to the community. On Ken Austin Parkway, many students are hither and yon on that parkway. Thank goodness no tragedies occurred.”
Despite evidence against Cougill, School Board attorney Dennis Alfonso said that mitigating factors raised concern over whether or not a termination recommendation would prevail at a Division of Administrative Hearings (DOA) proceeding.
Cougill’s efforts since the incident would likely be viewed favorably by DOA judges, Alfonso said, although he could not disclose what her efforts were.
“The severity of the charges is not at issue,” Alfonso said. “From my perspective, it wouldn’t necessarily be an easy case to prove on the merits.”
According to the school district, West Hernando Middle Assistant Principal Angela Kennedy called the school’s resource officer on the morning of Dec. 11, after Cougill initiated an incoherent conversation with her.
When Officer Deputy Shane Landgraff reached Cougill’s classroom, she was leaning against a counter talking with students, the district’s investigation showed.
“Her conversation was that of a personal nature, which is inappropriate,” Landgraff reported.
Cougill later submitted to a blood alcohol test that showed she was well above the legal limit of .08, according to the investigation.
During a school board meeting last week, attorney Dennis Alfonso told board members that there are “mitigating factors that can not be disclosed.”
“You only have public record as part of the story,” Alfonso said, adding that Cougill had taken steps to correct personal issues before the district’s investigation was complete.
Cougill taught sixth to eighth grades and was at West Hernando Middle for 11 years. She has been with the district for 14 years, having previously taught at Central High School.
“She admitted that she was wrong and that the allegations are true,” School Board member Matt Foreman said. “I don’t like the precedent this sets.”
Foreman later made a motion to accept Romano’s recommendation. The motion passed 4-1.
Bonfield was incredulous.
“She fell asleep at her desk and had impairment such as slurred speech,” she said. “Thank goodness there was no emergency that this person would have had to act, using very good judgment. We all know that (teaching) takes every bit of one’s intellect and being on top of our game.
“I feel that our students deserve better.”
Board Chairman Gus Guadagnino seemed to agree with Bonfield.
“This is crazy,” he said, turning to Alfonso with a question.
“Can somebody be deemed under the influence of alcohol after taking cough medication?”
“Yes,” Alfonso said.