Teacher's conduct defended

The husband of a Laguna Beach High School science teacher defended her at Tuesday's Board of Education meeting against an allegation of unprofessional conduct after she reported to work late Dec. 10 and was accused of alcohol intoxication. Another teacher and a former student also spoke on her behalf.

Mike McNight, husband of Joanie McNight, who has taught at the school for more than 20 years, said his wife was late but not under the influence of alcohol when she came to school the day after learning that her brother had suffered a heart attack.

Following the incident, Joanie was placed on paid leave for a month and returned to the classroom Tuesday. The board was to consider placing her on probation at a closed session that day. The results of the closed session have not been made public.

"The allegation that she went to school drunk is untrue and absurd. She is guilty of being late and that is all," Mike McKnight said. "To say otherwise is patently false, ridiculous and slanderous."

McNight's attorney, James Harker, who was also present at Tuesday's meeting, said his client did not deserve to be disciplined for being tardy due to a stressful family situation.

"There was no unprofessional conduct here," Harker told the Coastline Pilot. "The proper employer response should have been to follow the law by acknowledging its employee's family illness and allocating the hours she missed to family illness or personal necessity leave. Instead, the administration elected to treat the lost work time as a disciplinary matter, thereby failing to follow the district's own rules."

Mike McNight said his wife was under a lot of personal stress and overslept that morning. He said he suggested she call in sick, but she said she was eager to attend a meeting she had scheduled with Principal Don Austin regarding an anti-bullying program she was interested in pursuing at the school.

When McNight reported to school, a campus official claimed she smelled alcohol on McNight's breath, and she was sent home for "unprofessional conduct" while the administration conducted an investigation, Harker said.

Spanish teacher Rod Ortiz, who was privy to the events of Dec. 10, told the board McNight did not smell of alcohol that day and saw no evidence that an investigation was conducted on the incident.

"She told me she was being accused of being intoxicated, but I did not smell alcohol on her breath whatsoever," he said.

Ortiz also said the administration never approached him with any questions regarding the matter nor did they ask for a report about what happened that day.

"It is intolerable that she is being slandered on campus," Ortiz said.

Harker claimed that Austin had been non-responsive to the teacher's anti-bullying campaign, which led to tension between the two.

"Joanie is not a 'yes' woman," Harker said. "She has been outspoken about the lack of anti-bullying policies at LBHS and has been trying to get Austin to do something about it for years. For whatever reason, he hasn't been receptive.

"It's no coincidence that this [drinking accusation] happened during a time when she was pushing so hard for that. He's trying to put himself in a posture where he can look for any conceivable little thing [to have her removed]," he alleged.

Also speaking in the teacher's defense was Michael Wilson, a former student who is accused of stabbing three other students in an altercation on March 11 outside his home. Wilson, who was 16 at the time of the incident, is being prosecuted as an adult and a preliminary hearing in the case is scheduled to be held Tuesday. Wilson faces three felony counts of aggravated assault.

Wilson, in tears, told the board he was tormented at the high school and McNight had attempted to intervene.

"I was constantly bullied at the school, and Mrs. McNight was the only person there who would do anything about it," Wilson said.

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