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BOE fires teacher on alcohol related charges

Ken Buchanan

BOE HEARING WAINRIGHT
The Brantley County Board of Education terminated a teacher employed at Hoboken Elementary School Monday after testimony in a day-long hearing indicated she had provided alcohol for her own 15-year-old daughter during prom week and allowed under-aged Brantley County High School students to play beer pong in her Fernandina condo while she was there.

After listening to witnesses and attorneys in the public hearing from 9:30 a.m. to about 5 p.m., members of the board went into executive session to consider the future of Joanna Wainright, finally emerging about 9 p.m. to announce the teacher had been terminated.

Wainright was charged with providing alcohol to minor students and allowing its use by minor students in her presence during prom week in Jekyll Island and spring break in Fernandina Beach.

In pre-hearing interviews Wainright admitted she had provided beer for her 15-year-old daughter “but not for any other child,” and that may have been her downfall, although board members did not say which charge led to the teacher’s dismissal.

Defense attorney Teresa Bowen argued that state law allowed parents to allow their children to consume alcohol in the homes, and that included her condo or motel room — or anywhere else she was living at the time.

But board attorney Tracy Altman argued that the state code of ethics for educators held Wainright to a stricter set of guidelines which did not allow her to provide alcohol to minors in any location or under any circumstances.

The board heard from a stream of witnesses including students, parents and other teachers, as well as HES principal Kim Morgan, who testified that Wainright told her she had provided alcohol to her daughter “but not for any other child” — but only after she was questioned three times.

Taking the stand in her own defense Wainright wove a convoluted tale of the events of the evening, explaining how her husband bought some beer and wine coolers at the grocery store which somehow wound up in the backseat of her car when she drove her daughter to Jekyll late on prom night.

But her daughter testified that she took the beer from the trunk of the car to someone else’s room while Wainright went to secure a room of their own. In either case, the former teacher said she discovered her daughter  had the beer when they brought the bag back to their room, where she poured out two beers.

She did not say what happened to the remaining four beers or the alleged second six-pack.

But in addition to providing alcohol to her own daughter, Wainright also was charged with allowing underaged BCHS students to imbibe beer while playing beer pong in her condo while she was present.

One student said she went so far as to call him “the comeback kid” each time he fell behind and came back in the game, which involves bouncing a ping-pong ball into a plastic cup and drinking beer — lots of beer.

Wainright said she found that same student sleeping on her dining room table when she awoke one morning and he told her he couldn’t remember how he got there.

School board members and those who sat in the gallery heard tale after tale of minor drinking in condos, motel rooms and on the beach, where one student was ticketed by local police for possession of alcohol, and another was alleged to have buried a cooler of beer under the beach sand, which was found by law-enforcement officers and poured out when no one would claim it for fear of being ticketed as well.

Bowen brought in at least one student who said she never saw beer pong being played in the condo, one who said it was played but when Wainright discovered it was being played with beer she ordered the players to leave, as well as several character witnesses who said Wainright was a good and moral person who could be trusted with kids under her supervision.

Even Morgan agreed that she was a very good teacher who brought CRCT test scores up from 80 percent to 99 percent during her years at HES where she also was a team leader and a tireless, responsible instructor.

Bowen also told the board about one Robin Ham, a para-professional at HES with an ax to grind with Wainright, whom the attorney and the teacher indicated was behind the actions taken by the board against the teacher, which Bowen described as a “witch hunt by someone who can’t stand her.”

The board had several options after hearing almost eight hours of testimony. They could have terminated her, suspended her for 60 days without pay, or reinstated her, according to Sid Cottingham, a Douglas attorney who acted as administrative judge in the hearing.

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