Jury awards $50,000 to teacher accused of being drunk at school

Former Laguna Beach teacher accused of showing up to school drunk wins $50,000 from district

An Orange County Superior Court jury awarded a former teacher $50,000 after ruling that the Laguna Beach Unified School District violated her privacy by allowing reports to spread that she had accused of coming to school drunk.

But jurors sided with the district by rejecting three other charges — defamation, retaliation and failure to prevent retaliation.

Still, the attorney for former teacher Barbara Joan McKnight called the verdict a "major victory."

The district "violated McKnight's right to privacy back in December of 2010 by allowing a confidential claim that she had come to school under the influence of alcohol to be leaked, turning what should have been a private personnel matter into a public one," James Guziak said in a statement Monday.

Jurors interviewed after the trial, however, indicated that no one other than McKnight was found to have released confidential information, according to a statement the district released Tuesday.

Supt. Sherine Smith said the district was grateful that the jury found three of McKnight's claims without merit. She said the $50,000 award was far less than McKnight's earlier $1-million settlement demand.

The lawsuit stemmed from a 2010 incident in which McKnight, then a science teacher at Laguna Beach High School, arrived to class an hour and a half late, smelling of alcohol and slurring her words, according to a claim filed in Superior Court in November 2012.

District administrators accused McKnight of coming to work under the influence of alcohol and being insubordinate, according to the claim.

The school superintendent advised McKnight that she could return to the classroom by taking a sobriety test, which McKnight refused, according to court filings by the district.

McKnight was placed on paid administrative leave Dec. 10, the day of the incident. She resumed teaching the next month. McKnight continued teaching until her retirement in June, after 27 years with the district.

In court documents and on Facebook, McKnight contended she was the victim of "character assassination" for speaking out in favor of a gay rights event and an antibullying campaign.

Her attorney ascribed her tardiness the day of the incident to personal matters.

In January 2011, McKnight's attorney said in a letter to the school board that his client's brother was "gravely ill." McKnight was dealing with this and "other issues of compelling personal interest" well into the evening of Dec. 9, 2010. She overslept the next morning and called to say she would be late.

A disciplinary note was later placed in McKnight's personnel file, a move she unsuccessfully contested in court as a violation of her due process rights.

Nicole Knight Shine and Bryce Alderton write for Times Community News

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