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Milk Experiment Could Cost Johnston County Teacher His Job

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SMITHFIELD, N.C. — The high-school chemistry teacher who conducted a milk-drinking experiment in which some students drank to the point of vomiting can return to the classroom in January. But he will not be recommended for rehire.

According to a letter from the Johnston County school system, teacher Jeff Ferguson has been "severely" reprimanded, and Superintendent Jim Causby will not recommend that he be rehired in June.

Ferguson learned of the decision Saturday, a month after he was suspended with pay for conducting the experiment in his honors chemistry classes at Smithfield-Selma Senior High School. The goal was to demonstrate the limits of the body's ability to neutralize the acids in milk.

The letter said Ferguson erred by not notifying parents of the experiment in advance, awarding students extra credit for participating in the experiment, and not researching safety concerns more extensively.

The letter also said he had inappropriately pushed students to keep drinking after they felt sick, Ferguson said. No students were injured in the voluntary experiment, but several vomited.

"I'm surprised at the concerns that are supposedly addressed in the letter," Ferguson said. "I don't believe I erred in any way, because I didn't break any policies."

Smithfield-Selma teacher Jeff Ferguson has been suspended after his students got sick drinking milk during an experiment. Do you think he should have been suspended?YesNo

Jonathan Blumberg, a Raleigh attorney who is representing the school district, said he would not confirm the contents of the letter until the school system made a public statement Monday or Tuesday.

"The superintendent certainly did take very clear, appropriate and confidential personnel measures," Blumberg said. "Unfortunately, these are confidential personnel matters, and while this matter has been particularly public, the school system has tried hard to honor its ordinary and standard approach to what it can and cannot disclose."

Causby could not be reached Sunday.

The decision came after school district officials interviewed Ferguson twice, reviewed video of the experiment and spoke to students and staff.

Ferguson said he disagreed with all the district's conclusions and that he is considering filing legal complaints in the case.

"There's nothing in our policies that I can find or that they cited that said we needed to notify parents," Ferguson said. "We do labs that are way more dangerous, and I've never had to ask."

He said it also was not wrong to reward students who drank the milk faster. And he said he researched the experiment adequately, talking to the school's anatomy teacher about the potential for students to be ill.

Ferguson added that he urged only particular students to keep drinking the milk.

"I know what it is about them that makes them learn," Ferguson said. "If I'm egging them on, it's because I know that's the kind of thing that motivates that student."

Ferguson, who had been barred from returning to campus since his suspension, returns to the classroom Jan. 2. As a condition of his return, he must clear his lesson plans with principal Phil Lee.

Ferguson is also forbidden to conduct the milk-drinking experiment again.

If his contract is not renewed in June, Ferguson said he does not know what he will do next. He has taught at the school for three years and lives in Clayton with his wife, also a teacher at Smithfield-Selma, and their 1-year-old son.

"We're invested in this community," Ferguson said. "I've had a great deal of support from teachers and from students. That's the reason I want to go back there."