‘I can’t take this anymore!’ Disturbed school nurse was a danger, NJ court rules
NORTHFIELD — A tenured school nurse was fired after he suffered a breakdown and shouted “I can’t take this anymore” while a third-grade student cried in his office.
John Costello appealed his termination but lost the fight Thursday when an appellate court panel rejected his arguments.
“Costello was unfit to perform the duties of school nurse, and his incapacity posed a risk of harm to both students and staff,” the appellate decision says.
School officials said the way Costello handled a passed-out student made teachers cry.
Costello’s office also was in disarray, with an audit by the Atlantic County Department of Human Services finding 37 deficiencies with student immunization records.
School officials said they found unsecured prescription drugs, including his, as well as expired medication, some that had expired seven years earlier.
His office had stacks of unsecured student medical and immunization records in unlabeled folders and there was no glucometer to test blood sugar.
Several incidents during the 2014-15 school year resulted in the district filing tenure charges against Costello, who became a school nurse in 2001.
In one incident, he took a student suffering a seizure from a classroom but never discussed the matter with the teacher.
Five days later, he was called to a hallway where an unresponsive third-grade student was in a teacher’s arms. The student was gagging and about to vomit.
A summary of the event recounted in the appellate decision says he “approached the student with no sense of urgency. He hummed with a sheet of paper in his mouth, and waited for a class to pass in the hallway before approaching the student.
“Without consulting the three teachers present, Costello grabbed the student by her hand, pulled her to her feet, and walked her to the nurse’s office. Costello’s conduct brought the three teachers to tears.”
Nine days later in a meeting with the interim superintendent, Costello said he could not remember the incident.
“I don’t know if I’m coming or going to be honest with you,” he was quoted as saying.
In January 2015, school administrators found a third-grade student sitting at his desk crying while he sat there.
While his body trembled, Costello yelled, “I am tired of this. I can’t take this anymore.”
“I get no respect from the teachers, and I’m tired of how they speak to me,” he was quoted as saying.
He was placed on leave and ordered to undergo a psychological evaluation.
One psychologist said he suffered from anxiety and depression and described him as a “very complex and distraught man [who] is likely to conduct himself in an unpredictable way.” The evaluation concluded that he was not fit for duty.
Evaluations conducted by his own psychologist and psychiatrist, however, found that his condition did not prevent him from working. They blamed his breakdown on a reduction in staff, which left him as the only full-time nurse for both the elementary and middle schools.
An arbitrator ruled that he should lose his job and a Superior Court judge in 2016 upheld that decision.
In his appeal, he argued that the district and arbitrator should have relied on a psychiatric evaluation rather than a psychological one.
But the appellate decision on Thursday concluded that the law does not require either a psychological or psychiatric evaluation to determine incapacity. A school board also does not have to wait until students are harmed before firing a school employee, the decision says.
“The evidence clearly established Costello was unfit to perform the duties and functions of school nurse, and posed a danger to both students and staff if he remained in the position,” the panel of judges said.
Sergio Bichao is deputy digital editor at New Jersey 101.5. Send him news tips: Call 609-359-5348 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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