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Teacher Fights in Court to Clear Her Name

It was a bad week in early December 2010 for science teacher Joanie McKnight. Her gravely ill brother had a heart attack and was diagnosed with colon cancer.  Her husband, Mike, called late on Thursday night and told her about narrowly missing a potentially serious road accident. So she prepared some tabouleh, a Middle Eastern grain salad she makes with extra garlic, and drank some wine to help her sleep.

But McKnight forgot to set her alarm and overslept, calling Laguna Beach High School administrators to let them know she’d be late, recounted her attorney James Guziak.

After McKnight arrived at school that Friday, Dec. 10, 2010, the bad news got worse. She was accused of being intoxicated and acting uncooperatively when approached about it and later received a formal reprimand, court records show.

McKnight, a 25-year district employee, was given a temporary paid leave of absence.  She contested the district’s actions in a lawsuit, which concluded last week. In the ruling, Orange County Superior Court Judge Andrew Banks stated that McKnight’s defense did not present enough evidence to prove that the notice of unprofessional conduct should be removed from her personnel file.

McKnight’s attorney said he has a recording of a phone message that McKnight left her husband in midday that did not sound like the slurred speech of someone intoxicated.  Her husband added in a letter to the school board on Jan. 11, 2011, that what probably smelled on her breath, if anything, was the garlicky tabouleh, not alcohol.

But that’s not the way the district sees it.  “I think the facts support the actions of the school district,” said the district’s attorney, Daniel Spradlin, following the court’s recent ruling. “So far the court has seen and supported that.”

Last week’s ruling was the first of McKnight’s case, which was split into two trials with the second a jury trial scheduled for late November.  Another hearing, a motion for summary judgment, is scheduled for Aug. 20. Spradlin hopes the court will find that there is no basis for a trial and that the case will end there.

Guziak said the judge’s ruling does not reflect on his intended defense refuting that McKnight was not intoxicated and undeserving of a professional reprimand.

“The issue wasn’t whether she was under the influence or even whether they had a reasonable basis for their conclusions. The judge determined as a matter of law that in order to overturn the school board’s letter of reprimand, we had to show what was done was arbitrary and capricious, which means it was done in bad faith or an abuse of discretion, which is a very difficult burden of proof,” Guziak said.

If a trial proceeds, Guziak said he will argue that district officials are attempting to discredit McKnight and that she was not afforded a neutral investigation as promised.  McKnight, he said, had been a whistleblower about actions of former high school principal Don Austin and an activist about promoting an anti-bullying program at the school.  McKnight declined to take a sobriety test as directed by school officials that Friday because she distrusted that it would be administered fairly, Guziak said.

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