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An Unexplained Ambush

Why fire a nurse who’s “the best”?

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Denise Gough remembers every detail of the terrifying encounter in November 2004 that changed her life. “It was a warm, sunny day,” she recalls. “I was sitting at my desk when the superintendent walked in with the principal and slammed the door. They were both standing over me. I felt like a little ant. The superintendent said, ‘Pack up and leave right now.’”

She went home and drew her curtains, “I didn’t know what I was accused of,” she says. “I was afraid CNN would be outside my door.”

Gough had been at Rhode Island ’s Hampton Academy Junior High School as a nurse for 16 years, serving with more than 10 principals and consistently winning their praises, until she was blindsided by a new principal.

It’s unclear what led him to fire this accomplished professional, whom his predecessor had called “the best middle school nurse I’ve ever had the experience to work with.” The trouble may have grown out of an incident the previous year in which a student charged that Gough pushed her while giving her detention (the girl had made the same accusation against two teachers). She later recanted, but her father stayed mad. After that, several other parents complained about Gough—something that had never happened before. The arbitrator later noted the possibility that the angry father influenced the others.

Gough asked the principal to arrange a meeting with the parents so she could hear them out, apologize for any missteps, and clear the air. But the principal refused. Instead, Gough found herself the target in a series of escalating confrontations with the principal and superintendent that climaxed in their abrupt order for her to leave the building. 

She was suspended with pay for 10 days, while the superintendent supposedly investigated parent complaints; the arbitration hearing later brought out that there was no investigation. When the 10 days were up, the faculty welcomed her back with flowers and cake. 

But the principal remained hostile, and two months later she was suspended again, this time for supposedly disobeying a directive, although the arbitrator would later rule that Gough had clearly tried to comply with everything that was asked of her. This time, her suspension lasted a month. And at the end of the year, the superintendent said she couldn’t come back in the fall.

The union filed a grievance, saying the suspensions and the termination were grossly unfair. But the district claimed they had no obligation to show they were treating Gough fairly because nurses were not covered by the contract.

In fact, nurses had been part of the bargaining unit since it was first recognized in 1972, and they had even served on bargaining teams. The state Public Employee Labor Relations Board rejected the argument, but the district went all the way to the state Supreme Court trying unsuccessfully to avoid the contract’s fair treatment requirement.

Meanwhile, Gough hunted for a new position, but “at some point in each interview, someone would ask, ‘Why are you leaving your job?’ and I would say, ‘We’ve had a difference of opinion.’” And then they didn’t hire her.

Her luck finally changed in a town across the state line in Massachusetts. She went to work there in the fall of 2006—and started to heal. “I absolutely love it,” she said last May. “They’re professionals. They’re grateful for my service, and they know how to treat people. I wake up happy every morning.”

With 16 years invested in the New Hampshire retirement system and her good name to clear, however, Gough was not about to give up on Hampden. “People point fingers in the supermarket. They don’t know why I was terminated. They have doubts,” she said.

At the arbitration hearing in November, Gough says she “felt very positive. . . I knew that with an unbiased arbitrator, the truth would come out.”

In early February, as Gough cared for several students in her new office, she got a call from her union lawyer, Steve Sacks. “The decision’s in,” he said. “We won.”

“I was ecstatic,” Gough recalls.

The arbitrator ordered her reinstated the following fall, or, if she chose to stay in her new job, he ordered full compensation for her lost income and retirement plan benefits.

At first, she thought she would to return to her old job. But over the summer she changed her mind. “I know my colleagues would welcome me, and there’s a new principal, but it’s the same superintendent. I’d be walking down the same corridors, sitting in the same office. All the memories would be right back. I decided to stay where I can be happy. This is where my heart is now.”

Read next story: Inappropriate Touching

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