April 30, 2008 -- A high school science teacher in Florida has been booted from class, a decision she claims administrators made not based on poor job performance but on her moonlighting gig as a bikini mate aboard a local charter fishing boat.
Tiffany Shepherd, 30, a college-educated single mother of three children, ages 2, 6, and 9, had worked for four years in Florida's St. Lucie County School District, just north of Palm Beach, before an ugly divorce early this year caused enough financial strain that she had to seek a second job.
Earlier this month, the buxom blond took a job working for Gil Coombes and his wife, Kat, as a part of their charter fishing boat operation, Smokin' Em Charters. She was one of a handful of attractive women hired to roll out a new business concept combining fishing with bikini-clad, and sometimes topless, female mates.
"I wasn't making enough money," Shepherd, a Florida native and self-described lifelong angler, told ABC News. "This was perfect because I could get paid to fish. It was easy money. In two days fishing, I make more that I do in a week teaching."
Shepherd said that she has not and will not do a topless charter.
Her first fishing trip, Shepherd said, was Saturday, April 19. Four days later, she called into her school, Port St. Lucie High, to arrange for a substitute in order to attend a doctor's appointment. In the process, she learned that she was not welcome back for the rest of the year, nor would she have her annual contract for the 2008-09 school year renewed.
"They're under the impression I'm doing a topless charter, that I'm a stripper," Shepherd said. "I wasn't doing anything wrong. I wasn't in a thong, I was in a regular bathing suit."
Janice Karst, a school district spokesman, told ABC News that the decision to release Shepherd was based on more than 30 days of unexcused absences from school, a truancy that had already earned her two written reprimands this year.
She also said school officials did not know about her job as a "bikini" mate until after they filed her release paperwork. "As far as her claim about the boat job, we did not know about that until after she had been non-renewed," Karst said.
If officials had known, she added, it may have given administrators additional reason to discipline Shepherd. "Teachers tend to have higher levels of standards," she said.
Rumors Before Firing
Shepherd, however, argues that she only missed about 20 days of school, mostly for doctor's appointments or the ongoing divorce proceedings. All of them, she insisted, were documented.
Shepherd also insists that rumors about her involvement in the charter fishing boat company were floating among school board members and administrators before they decided to cut her loose, as well as among students in schools attended by her two older children.
Bikini Fishing Family Friendly?
Coombes' racy business model, which he rolled out earlier this year and which was, he said in an interview with ABC News, his wife's brainchild, had already stirred up a local controversy that grew so rancorous that officials in Fort Pierce, Fla., booted his 44-foot boat from the public marina for violating the city's family-friendly atmosphere.
Coombes, whose charter company landed in nearby Harbortown Marina, said the couple had undertaken due diligence before offering the bikini cruise — and, for a price, a topless option. He had called the U.S. Coast Guard and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
There was nothing illegal about the idea.
"Once you hit three miles out, there's not a county or state that has any jurisdiction," Coombes said. "We made sure it was cool."
Coombes' Web site lays out a menu of women available for hire on cruises that go hunting Florida waters for kingfish, mahi-mahi and wahoo, among others. Under an 18-and-older disclaimer, each of the women are featured in photo spreads, some scantily dressed and in provocative positions. One woman describes herself as a former Playboy model.
Coombes said he believes Shepherd is a good teacher who has been "railroaded" by the school district. He described a safe environment where he and a male mate make sure that charter clients do not get unruly with the women. "I hire women with respect and class, so I don't have to worry about some guy touching her," he said, adding that he has warned the women he will contact police if he hears about any sexual exchanges for money.
Shepherd said she received a text message from her students this week with the blackboard message "We Miss You!"
While no longer welcome in the school, she will be paid through July. Her big fear, she said, is that she will not be able to find work in other school districts for next year. To make sure her firing does not interfere with that, she said, she will consider hiring a lawyer.
"I want to make sure I'll be able to teach in the state of Florida again," she said. "I want answers, and I don't want this to happen to anyone else."