St. Petersburg Times Online: Business

Weather | Sports | Forums | Comics | Classifieds | Calendar | Movies

Teacher suspended after alcohol inquiry

The assistant cheerleading coach at Crystal River Middle School is accused of providing beer to girls.

BARBARA BEHRENDT
Published April 28, 2004

INVERNESS - The School Board on Tuesday voted to suspend Crystal River Middle School teacher Terry Yant without pay and begin the process of firing him.

Yant, the school's assistant cheerleading coach, is accused of providing beer for girls on his squad during a cheering competition in March in Orlando. Two girls reported he gave them beer in a paper cup while they were at the hotel where the squad was staying, according to the district's investigation, a copy of which the Citrus Times received last week.

The investigation also found that, overnight on March 6, the girls drank alcohol provided by another group of cheerleaders, that boys from that group stayed in the girls' hotel room, and that the girls visited other rooms.

School Board attorney Richard "Spike" Fitzpatrick outlined the details of what happened, pointing out that the girls said Yant gave them alcohol, that Yant brought beer and whiskey to the hotel with him, and that he went out and drank some alcohol with other coaches while students were in the hotel.

Yant has adamantly denied that he provided alcohol for the girls, although he said he went out for drinks and dinner. During Tuesday's meeting, his union representative, Sandra Armstrong, argued the investigation only turned up two girls who said he gave them alcohol and was full of other inconsistencies and second-hand reports.

Ultimately the board voted 4-1 to suspend Yant with pay and begin termination proceedings. Board Chairwoman Ginger Bryant voted no.

Armstrong told the board that Yant would seek a formal hearing. But whether that hearing will be before the School Board or an administrative law judge has not yet been determined.

The School Board ultimately will decide whether Yant loses his job, even if an administrative law judge makes a recommendation, Fitzpatrick explained.

Also Tuesday, the investigative file on the school's head cheerleading coach, Irene Hupp, and the stinging written reprimand it concludes with, were opened to the public. Hupp also was accused of wrongdoing in connection with the March trip to Orlando.

In the reprimand, dated April 12, superintendent David Hickey told Hupp "these are matters of significant concern as we practice our profession."

Hupp is a veteran teacher, past president of the teachers union and a member of the teachers' contract bargaining team for 20-plus years.

Hickey stated that he will rely on Crystal River Middle School principal Gina Tovine to require strong guidelines and reporting procedures for any future overnight trips by the cheerleaders.

"I realize that you have worked as a valued employee for many years and that you have dedicated your afterschool time to develop a successful cheerleading program at Crystal River Middle School to benefit our students," Hickey wrote. "It is also important to ensure the health and safety of these same young people who are entrusted to your care."

Hickey went on to say that future similar violations will result in additional discipline, up to and including dismissal.

The Hupp file also includes a five-page response written by Hupp's attorney. It refutes the charges and offers evidence that one accusation in the reprimand is factually untrue.

Her attorney, Russell LaPeer, has demanded that the district remove, correct or modify the reprimand.

"Any letter of reprimand is an untoward event," LaPeer wrote on Hupp's behalf. "One that is manifestly erroneous - like the April 12 letter - is also unspeakably despicable in its treatment of Mrs. Hupp, as it is disreputable in its content."

The district accuses Hupp of failing to properly supervise the cheerleaders on the trip in violation of school district policies and for improper use of public funds in violation of both district policies at the state Code of Ethics for educators.

The funds accusation is based on the district's conclusion that Hupp used school money to pay for the room Yant shared with one school coach-in-training and a coach from Rage, which is Hupp's private cheerleading group.

"School Board policies . . . and the Code of Ethics require employees to separate their private business from school responsibilities, including the funding of the two," Hickey wrote in his reprimand.

LaPeer called that accusation "utterly mistaken factually."

He went on to explain and provide receipts that seem to prove that Hupp put the cost of the rooms and the rollaway beds used by the two other men in Yant's room onto her credit card. While she sought school reimbursement for the rooms after the event, she paid for the rollaway beds personally.

Hupp's lawyer also disputed that there was any conflict of interest with the Rage cheerleaders. Other coaches are in charge of the private cheerleaders at competition, and Hupp spent all her time with the middle school group except during one short fracas involving the Rage team on Saturday morning. She stepped 15 feet to 20 feet away from her school team to find out what was going on, and within 10 minutes she was back solely with her school cheerleaders.

The investigative reports from the girls do not indicate that Hupp was busy with the Rage group rather than supervising her school group, LaPeer noted, saying the bottom line on the conflict accusation "is as factually unfounded as it is maligning of Mrs. Hupp."

In his reprimand, Hickey reminded Hupp that she allowed cheerleaders to stay up late that Saturday in the belief they would maintain good behavior.

But what followed was a party-like atmosphere including alcohol, smoking and possibly marijuana use along with other rules violations. "It was your responsibility to adequately supervise our students," Hickey wrote. "This role and the corresponding duties are spelled out in the guidelines for field trips."

Hickey went on to write that Hupp admitted that she knew Yant went out drinking at Hooters on Saturday night in violation of school district policy. "As head sponsor, I would expect you to ensure as much as possible that your chaperones understand our School Board policy and that you enforce such policies," Hickey wrote.

But LaPeer also challenged that conclusion.

He noted that Hupp never said she knew Yant was going out drinking or going out to Hooters. From his own interview notes with district investigator Mary Kay Lucas, LaPeer said Hupp never made that statement to her.

LaPeer also outlined in detail how Hupp stayed by the side of the cheerleaders that Saturday night until 1:30 a.m. Sunday, five hours after the parent chaperone on the trip Melinda Kofmehl had gone to sleep in the room they shared. LaPeer also pointed out that Kofmehl "had the audacity to sign a written complaint (against Hupp) that the "CRMS cheerleaders should have been better supervised'."

Her complaint is one of four parent complaints that led to the investigation of Hupp.

LaPeer and Hupp also point some blame at Yant. While Hupp did not see him provide alcohol for cheerleaders, his absence at the hotel that evening meant Hupp was left with the sole responsibility for supervising the girls.

"Unlike Mr. Yant, Mrs. Hupp never left the Crystal River Middle School cheerleaders. Unlike Mrs. Kofmehl, Mrs. Hupp did not retire to her room until it appeared to her that all of the girls were in their rooms with the doors closed and quiet prevailing," LaPeer wrote.

"The critical question - and the only one that makes sense - is to what extent it was possible for Mrs. Hupp to enforce polices against these two, adult chaperones, each of whom reneged in his and her commitment, failed to participate as chaperones and failed Mrs. Hupp."

LaPeer called Yant and Kofmehl "unreliable" as chaperones and Hupp, in an unusual sworn affidavit, stated that she would never allow either of them to go along on another cheerleading competition "after their failure to contribute to chaperoning that weekend."

She also stated in that sworn statement that she did not learn that the girls had consumed alcohol and violated other rules until she was notified March 15 of the investigation. "To this date, I do not know where the CRMS cheerleading girls obtained alcoholic drinks or any other unlawful substances," Hupp stated.

- Barbara Behrendt can be reached at 564-3621 or behrendt@sptimes.com

© Copyright, St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.