Nurse alleges school underreported violence

In a suit, he claims the Phila. district and his former principal retaliated after his complaints.

Posted: September 22, 2007

A school nurse filed suit in federal court yesterday alleging that the Philadelphia School District and his former principal retaliated after he complained that his school was underreporting violent incidents.

Michael Romano, a school nurse for seven years, charges that he was disciplined, lost out on a pay increase, and was forced to transfer to another school because he complained that the number of serious incidents reported by Tilden Middle School in Southwest Philadelphia did not correspond with the student injuries he was treating.

Tilden administrators reported 16 serious incidents, including assaults and disorderly conduct, between September 2006 and February, but they omitted 48 others that resulted in injuries to students that Romano treated, the complaint says.

Public schools are required by state law to report all serious incidents to the district.

Attorney Mark B. Frost said the complaint was filed in U.S. District Court because it alleges that the district and Tilden's principal violated Romano's constitutional rights, particularly freedom of speech, when they punished him for speaking out.

The suit also claims that the district and Tilden officials violated Pennsylvania's whistle-blower statute, which protects employees who report wrongdoing.

"As a result of speaking out on the issue of violence within the district and his school, he was retaliated against," Frost said.

Tilden principal Michelle Burns said, "I can tell you that's not true."

She said she had not seen the complaint and could not comment further.

Fernando Gallard, a school district spokesman, said the district had not yet been served with a copy of the complaint. He said the district does not comment on pending legal matters.

In addition to damages, the suit asks the federal court to establish a uniform procedure for reporting acts of physical violence in Philadelphia public schools. The complaint maintains that there are "no apparent formal consistent and observed procedures for documenting acts of physical violence" in the district.

"It seems to be a haphazard reporting process," Frost said.

In March, as the district saw an increase in violence at some schools, including assaults on teachers, Romano began looking into violent incidents being reported at Tilden.

Romano, who had been a nurse at Tilden since 2000, asked Burns and other Tilden administrators and district officials about the protocol and requirements for reporting violence, the complaint says.

After receiving information about the serious incidents reported by Tilden since September of 2006, Romano compared them with his nursing records and "found a large discrepancy in the acts of violence reported and the acts of violence they had documented."

When he treated a student who had been injured in a violent incident, Romano would contact the parent, notify the principal, and maintain a record that was supposed to be added to the district's database of violent incidents, the suit says.

Because Tilden officials did not respond to his questions and concerns about what he viewed as underreporting of serious incidents, Romano contacted Jack Stollsteimer, the state-appointed safe-schools advocate, who monitors violence in Philadelphia schools.

After Romano showed Stollsteimer his data in April, the complaint says, Tilden officials confiscated Romano's walkie-talkie, which he needed for medical emergencies.

A short time later, it says, Romano got notice that he had violated district policy on student health screenings and was ordered to a hearing. He was also accused of falsifying student medical records.

The complaint denies those allegations and maintains that the disciplinary charges "were brought as a pretext."

Romano's work had been praised in prior years and he had received satisfactory evaluations.

And although Stollsteimer was initially critical of the reporting practices at Tildren, the suit says Stollsteimer e-mailed Romano April 27 to say that after reviewing the matter with Burns and the district, "he felt there was no underreporting by Tilden."

In May, Burns presided at a disciplinary hearing that found Romano had violated district procedures. Those findings were upheld by a nursing supervisor at another hearing in June.

Romano was rated unsatisfactory, forced to transfer to Sullivan Elementary in the Wissinoming section, docked a week's salary, and barred from collecting a pay increase this year.


Contact staff writer Martha Woodall at 215-854-2789 or at martha.woodall@phillynews.com.

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