CHATSWORTH, Ga. - A former Murray County middle school teacher who pleaded guilty to driving under the influence earlier this year begged the school board Tuesday to give her a second chance, but board members upheld the school's decision not to renew her contract.
"I love this school system, and I love those schoolchildren," Jennifer Zeigler told the board Tuesday, crying. "I'm not making excuses; I have no excuse. But I feel like I deserve a second chance."
School Superintendent Vickie Reed did not recommend that Zeigler's contract be renewed this spring, effectively ending her job with the school system. Zeigler, who taught for 26 years, requested a fair dismissal hearing before the board.
The seven-member school board heard about four hours of testimony before deliberating in private for more than an hour. After returning, members voted unanimously to uphold Reed's decision not to rehire Zeigler based on willful neglect of duties and good and sufficient cause for termination.
Reed testified Tuesday that Zeigler not only violated the Georgia Code of Ethics, but also had lost the respect of students, parents and her co-workers.
Zeigler and her lawyer, Stewart Duggan, argued that she had completed all the recommended treatment and should be rehired.
The Eton, Ga., police officer who arrested Zeigler before daylight on March 16 testified he clocked her driving 28 mph over the speed limit. Before Sgt. Todd Pasley pulled her over, she hit a truck stopped at a red light and nearly hit another vehicle as she was pulling into a parking lot, the officer said.
The video from the police car camera shown during Tuesday's hearing shows Zeigler swaying and stumbling as she walked around the parking lot. She repeatedly told Pasley she had not been drinking.
She also told him several times that she had to be at Bagley Middle School, where she was a language arts teacher, by 6:30 a.m. Zeigler testified she was on her way to school to administer a practice test to students before classes began.
"I'll go to the emergency room," she told Pasley when he scolded her for not cooperating in a field sobriety test. "I haven't had anything to drink. That's bull. That's bull."
Blood samples taken at the emergency room showed Zeigler had a blood alcohol content level of 0.31. The legal limit in Georgia is 0.08. She pleaded no contest to the DUI charge in May and was sentenced to 12 months probation and an alcohol treatment program.
In her testimony, Zeigler admitted that she is an alcoholic and frequently drank herself to sleep. The night before she was arrested she drank vodka until after 1 a.m., she said.
She said she did not know how long she had been an alcoholic and insisted she had never gone to school or attended a school event under the influence of alcohol before her arrest.
"I drank at night," she testified. "I didn't think I was an alcoholic, but I know now I am. I'm taking the measures I have [to] to get well."
A co-teacher and her former principal testified that Zeigler was an excellent teacher who was loved by her students.
The school's attorney, Stanley Hawkins, argued that Zeigler's problems could not be fixed in one summer. He also accused her of not being truthful in her testimony.
After the decision, Zeigler's mother, Joyce Hall, lashed out at the school system and the community. Her daughter had been treated unfairly, even receiving a death threat since her arrest, she said.
"We are all human. We all make mistakes," Hall said. "When someone they [school board members] love as much as I love my daughter makes a mistake, I hope they get a second chance. The chance my daughter didn't get."
Zeigler can appeal the board's decision to the Georgia state school board. Her attorney said they have not decided whether to do so.
Contact Mariann Martin at firstname.lastname@example.org or 706-980-5824.