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Friday, Mar 27, 2015

Suspended teacher speaks out about incident

Tribune Staff


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Erin Cougill acknowledges her mistake: As a diabetic, she said she should have known how alcohol would interact with her medication.

A teacher with 14 years of experience in Hernando County schools, Cougill made headlines in December after showing up to work at West Hernando Middle School intoxicated.

Schools Superintendent Lori Romano initially recommended that the school board terminate Cougill, who failed a blood alcohol test at the school Dec. 11 and was suspended without pay.

In June, school board attorney Dennis Alfonso advised the board that a termination likely would not be upheld at a Division of Administrative Hearings proceeding, and a split board voted to allow Cougill to keep her job. There was a caveat: Cougill, a language arts teacher, was to submit paperwork from an addiction expert stating she had met the requirements of a substance-abuse or addiction program by Aug. 1.

While Cougill said she did complete such a program at Bayfront Health Brooksville, she did not turn in the required paperwork by Aug. 1. She doesn’t entirely blame herself.

“I did what my lawyer told me to do,” she said. “He told me the paperwork had to be turned in by Aug. 11, and that’s the number I had in my head. I trusted that he was working for me.”

Cougill acknowledged that she signed the agreement in April and had a copy. Mark Herdman, the Clearwater lawyer who represented her, did not respond to a request for comment.

“What it boils down to is they originally gave me my job back because they thought I would sue,” Cougill said. “I’ve had medical issues since I was attacked by a pit bull, and I was out for a while on family medical leave.

“Being tenured, I feel like I’m being pushed out.”

Cougill said she also believes that district employees are ignoring reference requests from other counties, as she tries to land another teaching job.

District spokesman Eric Williams said the district is required to provide verification of employment and the dates a person worked for the district. He said the district, as an entity, “would not ignore any employment reference requests.”

“An applicant usually lists references as part of his-her application or resume, and the person who makes the decision to hire or not to hire an applicant usually calls individuals to provide references, not the district’s human resources department,” Williams said.

Williams said he could not say whether individual employees provided references for Cougill.

Cougill said the incident has altered her life. She said the media coverage is embarrassing and some former friends in the district no longer take her calls.

Mostly, she said, she wants to get back to work. Cougill said she recently was recertified to teach in Florida through 2019.

“I’m highly educated and a highly-effective teacher,” she said. “I take responsibility for allegedly (showing up to work intoxicated), but I still thought (the punishment) was excessive. They gave me eight months off, when I could have done the drug-alcohol program in 16 weeks.”

Cougill also had an explanation for failing the blood alcohol test at school on Dec. 11.

According to the school district, West Hernando Middle’s assistant principal, Angela Kennedy, called the school’s resource officer that morning after Cougill initiated an incoherent conversation with her.

Cougill turned in her badge and keys that day after speaking with the resource officer and taking the blood-alcohol test, the district investigation showed.

Cougill last week said she drank alcohol the night of Dec. 10 with friends visiting from Scotland. She said she takes medication for diabetes and did not realize what effect the alcohol would have.

“I stopped drinking at 11:30 the night my friends from Scotland were here,” she said. “Their liquor (has a higher alcohol content) than ours. I had a glass and a half of wine and a shot of Scotch whiskey, and that did me in. My blood sugar had a lot to do with it. At one point (in my life) I did drink too much, but through this alcohol and drug (treatment), I don’t give a crap about alcohol. I was hungover and my diabetic medication interfered. Diabetics don’t process alcohol well.

“It’s heartbreaking, and I’ve been lambasted in the paper. This whole thing is my fault for not understanding my medical condition well enough and drinking.”

She said the presumably low possibility of landing another teaching job in Hernando is frustrating.

“I’m packing up to move,” Cougill said. “But you know, if I was so horrible, the state (Department of Education) would have come after me.”

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