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Science teacher under review

Joanie McKnight is teaching during 45-day period. She was accused of drunkenness at school and other misbehavior. She denies allegations.

January 27, 2011|By Ashley Breeding, coastlinepilot@latimes.com

A Laguna Beach High School science teacher who allegedly showed up late and drunk at the school has been placed on a 45-day employment review.

The Board of Education determined after a hearing that Joanie McKnight displayed "unprofessional conduct" on Dec. 10.

Teacher Joanie McKnight was sent home from the school last month after the principal asserted that she smelled of alcohol. Her lawyer strongly denies that she had been drinking before work.

McKnight continues to teach during this period imposed by the district, according to her attorney, James Harker.

McKnight received an official notice from the district Jan. 13 stating that she had been tardy, under the influence of alcohol and insubordinate, Harker told the Coastline Pilot.

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"This letter [from the school board] should never have been issued," he said. "(Fellow teacher) Rod Ortiz' testimony at the last meeting, whereby he told the board that Joanie breathed right in his nose and didn't smell of alcohol whatsoever, should have cleared her."

McKnight is now also being penalized for insubordination, Harker said, because she requested the presence of a union representative when Principal Don Austin threatened to call the police and force her to take a breathalyzer test the morning of the incident.

"Joanie was asserting her [Weingarten] rights," Harker said of her legal right to union representation during employment investigations.

"The local union has filed a grievance because management violated the teacher's contract by not investigating this situation."

The notice served by the district, Harker said, spells out a 45-day period whereby McKnight has the opportunity to improve her conduct.

"In reality, this means if management wanted to discipline her after the 45-day period, even if she 'corrected her behavior,' they can do that," he said. "We fear that Austin and those who act at his behest will have her under the microscope and come up with anything they can and throw the kitchen sink at her."

Harker said Thursday that he sent a letter of opposition to the district.

"We'll see what happens at the end of the 45 days," Harker said. "Right now, Joanie is back in the classroom doing what she loves. The real unfortunate thing in all of this is that the proper education and protection of the kids — something Joanie has constantly pushed for — has been overshadowed by these half-baked allegations and disciplinary action against her."

In response to a request for comment, Austin issued the following statement via email: "The Board of Education met on Jan. 11 to consider the evidence regarding an incident involving Mrs. McKnight from Dec. 10. Mrs. McKnight made the decision not to have the case conducted in a public hearing.

"This would have allowed for full disclosure of all information, including witness statements, timelines, and an opportunity to question those involved. As a result of her decision, we are not at liberty to discuss any of the facts of this case or to respond to allegations outside of the established policies and procedures."

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