Hearing Will Go On In Teen Overdose Case 

Hearing Will Go On In Teen Overdose Case 
Posted by FoM on January 12, 2000 at 08:05:59 PT
By Scott Fallon, Staff Writer
Source: Bergen Record
NEWARK -- There is enough evidence to continue a hearing on whether the Wayne school district may fire a vice principal for failing to order a drug test for a student who fatally overdosed weeks later, a judge ruled Tuesday.The decision by Administrative Law Judge Mumtaz Bari-Brown came about an hour after Robert Schwartz, the lawyer defending Joseph Graceffo, asked that the case be dismissed because of "numerous inconsistencies" in testimony by the district's witnesses.
In making his case Monday, Schwartz presented a former supervisor of Graceffo -- former Wayne Valley Principal Russ DeVries -- who hinted that friction between Superintendent Raymond Kwak and Graceffo could have led to the charges against the vice principal. He said Kwak "hated Joe Graceffo."Graceffo is charged with failing to order a drug test last January for Nicholas Lucatorto, an 11th-grader at Wayne Hills High School, after a teacher said the teen smelled of marijuana smoke. Lucatorto died two weeks later from a heroin overdose at an overnight house party -- a tragedy that was followed by aggressive reinforcement of the school's drug-testing policy.Graceffo was suspended pending the outcome of the court hearings and a ruling by the state commissioner of education.Under the district's drug policy, an administrator must order a urinalysis for any student suspected of drug use. School officials have said they have a "zero tolerance" policy when deciding whether to order a drug screening for students suspected of drug use.In October, Susan Ammerman, a physical-education teacher at Wayne Hills, testified that on Jan. 21 she smelled marijuana on Lucatorto and noticed that his pupils were dilated. Ammerman reported her findings to Graceffo. But two school nurses who examined the teen later testified that his eyes were normal and he smelled only of cigarette smoke.While the nurses were performing their examination, Graceffo phoned Lucatorto's mother to tell her about the incident. Lucatorto's mother told Graceffo that her son had been ill with the flu and was on prescription medicine. Graceffo decided not to order a urinalysis.Court testimony by school personnel has indicated that other teachers and administrators did not automatically order drug tests, but waited for the outcome of nurses' examinations before doing so. Schwartz said Graceffo was taking the fall for the tragedy and all charges against him should be thrown out."We can't hold Mr. Graceffo to strict accountability if no one else is being held to strict accountability," Schwartz said. "This is a case about blame. " Steven Fogarty, the attorney for the Wayne Board of Education, argued that Graceffo willfully defied the law by not testing Lucatorto because he "just didn't care."Graceffo's inaction "is also a willful disregard for the health and safety of that child," he said.Following a 45-minute recess, Judge Bari-Brown ruled that after nine days' worth of testimony by the district's witnesses, the district had met its burden in presenting evidence that could support the charges. She said that whether the drug policy allows discretion is still undetermined and she will address that issue once the hearing is completed.The hearing, which began in early October, was to continue today and into February.After the Bari-Brown ruling, the defense called its first witness -- DeVries, for whom Graceffo had worked for several years in the early to mid-1990s.DeVries hinted that the sour relationship of Kwak and Graceffo could have led to the charges against the vice principal. He testified that Kwak and Graceffo had at least two heated confrontations over different topics after Kwak arrived in the district in the mid-1990s. When DeVries named Graceffo as a possible successor after he announced his retirement in 1996, Kwak told him not to submit the vice principal's name, DeVries testified."Dr. Kwak hated Joe Graceffo," DeVries said.Kwak could not be reached for comment Tuesday evening. DeVries testifed that Graceffo was an "outstanding" school administrator."This is a total travesty," he said of the charges. During cross-examination, Fogarty attempted to discredit DeVries by submitting a number of evaluations from past superintendents that said DeVries needed improvement in supervising students, especially in enforcing the smoking policy. DeVries noted there were about 40 positive checks on the evaluation and only that one negative remark.DeVries testified that he was chastised by the board for not following Kwak's direct orders to reprimand a teacher who got into a shouting match with a student after the teen allegedly threw a snowball at the teacher.Published: Wednesday, January 12, 2000Copyright  2000 Bergen Record Corp. Related Articles:Vice Principal's Inaction Upset Teachers - 11/10/99 Says She's Been Ostracized Over Drug Test - 10/23/99
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