Reading Massachusetts Education

Reading Health Issues

One of the early indicators of Superintendent Harutunian's leadership style was in his handling of health issues. For many years prior to his arrival in 1995, parents had pushed to have adequate fulltime school nurse coverage, specifically, a nurse in each school. At that time, two nurses were responsible for the coverage of 4 elementary schools and two middle schools. A third nurse held a fulltime position at Reading Memorial High School. A study (conducted by the Birch Meadow PTO Safety Committee in the late 1980s) of 40 Boston area communities placed Reading dangerously close to the bottom of school nurse coverage.

One evening in January 1996, newly hired Superintendent Harutunian invited parents to meet with him to discuss their school nurse concerns. The meeting room was packed. When the Superintendent later described that meeting to School Committee, parents were appalled to hear his version of what had transpired, as well as his conclusions. They requested a copy of the minutes of their meeting with him but were told that Open Meeting law does not require minutes to be kept of “administrative” meetings. There were no minutes.

By April 1996, life was made so miserable for the school nurses that the popular Head Nurse, JoAnn McMahon (who had worked in Reading for nearly 20 years) resigned. The Superintendent indicated to the Reading Chronicle (5/3/96) that he did not know if the resignation was permanent or temporary, even though he had actually received her resignation letter April 30, 1996. When requested, he refused to release all but the first paragraph to the public. The letter, obtained months later from the Mass. Department of Public Health, paints a picture of abuse, harassment and threats.

A sordid tale of punitive action against nurses ensued, culminating in presentations before School Committee for the possible subcontracting of school nurse coverage through Winchester Hospital.

Rather than hire a replacement for McMahon, Superintendent Harutunian directed Assistant Superintendent Dennis Richards to include the duties of Head Nurse with all of his other responsibilities. During the extensive approximately year-long period in which the Reading Schools had no one with a medical background overseeing the school nurses, parents attempted to fill the gaps in public health information. One notable example occurred when there was a nationwide recall of defective epipens which are used to treat life-threatening allergic reactions (such epipens often are kept in schools for emergencies). Richards, totally unqualified for his "Head Nurse" assignment, had no knowledge of the recall. Such ignorance could have had tragic consequences if parents not pushed the issue and insisted on checking on school supplies.

For several years, school nurses were held up as an example to other Reading school employee bargaining units of what happens to those who question authority and prioritize the health and safety of children above the edicts of the Superintendent.

The treatment of Reading school nurses and the parents who advocated for them reflects one hallmark of the Harutunian administration's approach to leadership in Reading: evading public records requirements by holding “administrative” input sessions with the public rather than entertaining input at a school committee meeting (which would require that public records of the proceedings be kept).

Administrative meetings can be used for a variety of purposes, ranging from determining who the "players" are (concerned community members or otherwise) to identifying the means by which misinformation can be disseminated (to be repeated later as “fact” by unknowing meeting attendees and participants). Regardless of how valid their concerns may be, parents' efforts are thwarted and the administration’s version of reality promoted. To achieve this, control of information is paramount.








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JoAnn McMahon Resignation Materials [.pdf document, 129kb download] including JoAnn McMahon's resignation letter (4/30/96, received by DPH 5/1/96), Harutunian's cover letter and partial disclosure (5/8/96) and an article that appeared in the Reading Chronicle (5/3/96).

"Most cases of bullying involve a serial bully - one person to whom all the dysfunction can be traced. The serial bully has done this before, is doing it now - and will do it again. Investigation will reveal a string of predecessors who have either left unexpectedly or in suspicious circumstances, have taken early or ill-health retirement, have been unfairly dismissed, have been involved in disciplinary or legal action, or have had stress breakdowns. Serial bullies exploit the recent frenzy of downsizing and reorganisation to hinder recognition of the pattern of previous cases." -


School Department and School Committee negotiation game playing at the expense of school nurses and students. From 1995 - 1996, Reading school nurses struggled for representation, believing the School Department was bargaining in bad faith. The nurses contemplated filing a complaint with the Labor Relations Commission.

The school department faced a dilemma: to recognize the Teamsters or the Teachers Union as the group to represent the nurses. Harutunian urged recognition of the Teamsters as nurse bargaining agent, confident that the Teamsters wouldn't spend the money to send a representative to negotiate on behalf of only four nurses. The School Department was also concerned that, if the Teacher's Union represented the nurses, they might face stiffer resistance and jeopardize ongoing teacher's contract negotiations. Ultimately, the Teamsters were recognized in a unanimous vote by the School Committee to "represent" the nurses' concerns. (Nurse Negotiations 08/21/95, 11/20/95, Litigation: 10/28/96). Divide and conquer.


01/20/99 - State Joint Advisory Against Locked School Bathrooms , David Driscoll, Commissioner, DOE, Howard Koh, Commissioner, DPH, Louis Visco, Board of Registration of Plumbers. Reading has a history of limiting student access to restroom facilities. Many RMHS restroom facilities are continually locked, despite State plumbing regulations. Locked restrooms are representative of school management and administration problems, not building deficiencies.