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City Never Inspected School Where Teacher Died of Legionnaires' Disease

By Murray Weiss | August 10, 2015 7:23am
 James Rouse was the
James Rouse was the "canary in a coal mine" for the Legionnaires' disease outbreak, his brother said.
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Family of James Rouse

THE BRONX — The city’s Health Department never inspected a South Bronx public school after a teacher there died of Legionnaires’ disease in April while hundreds of students were attending classes, DNAinfo New York has learned.

Music teacher James Rouse, 52, who taught at P.S. 325, died in April after contracting Legionnaires' disease. His family said the city “ignored” their pleas for a thorough investigation of Rouse's death months before the worst Legionnaires' outbreak in city history hit in June, killing 10 people and sickening nearly 100 others.

The city is now scurrying to have the school inspected before it re-opens next month to ensure that P.S. 325, near the outbreak epicenter, is safe for children and teachers, DNAinfo New York has learned.

Ellie Engler, staff director for the United Federation of Teachers, told “On The Inside” that union officials will meet this week with Department of Education officials to “inspect the building and make sure it's safe for occupancy at school opening.”

“Teachers and parents would have felt more secure if the DOE had checked the building's water and ventilation system's after the disease was reported,” Engler said. “Keeping staff and students safe is our first concern.”

This weekend, the mayor and Health Commissioner Mary Bassett insisted the epidemic was ebbing, but disclosed that there were seven more victims and that several more sites had been identified with the legionella bacteria, including Samuel Gompers High School, on Southern Boulevard, not far from P.S. 325.

The mayor said the city would shut Gompers high and clean it before students return, but he did not mention P.S. 325.

Rouse was a music teacher at P.S. 325, The Urban Science Academy, on Teller Avenue, which is situated inside the outbreak's cluster. A professional pianist and marathoner, Rouse specialized in teaching special needs children. He died of Legionnaires’ disease on April 30 after a brief illness.

The city’s investigation into his death consisted primarily of asking his family questions about whether Rouse had been to spas or owned a hot tub, his family and sources say.

The DOH never inspected P.S 325 or interviewed colleagues to ensure that the more than 330 children and 40 teachers at P.S. 325 were not exposed to the disease.

The city’s investigation took 10 minutes and involved them answering a prepared list of questions centering on “where James lived, where he grocery shopped and whether he visited a spa, or belonged to a gym," according Rouse’s younger sister, Patricia, a lawyer and assistant counsel to Suffolk County.

“We were asking them to interview people and test for bacteria, but all they said was they take down this information and cross reference the addresses,” Patricia Rouse said.

“They did not interview anyone and they did not go to the school to see if anyone was sick and it was just case closed from the beginning,” Patricia Rouse said. "We were begging them.”

Mayor Bill de Blasio and Heath Commissioner Mary Bassett on Thursday defended the city’s response to Rouse’s death after DNAinfo raised concerns whether it was thorough.

De Blasio maintained that “a single death” was not enough to trigger a full-blown investigation, primarily because tracing the airborne disease was extremely difficult without other victims surfacing to narrow the search.

"One death alone wouldn't necessarily spur (a probe)," the mayor said. The city needs "a pattern to follow."

And a Health Department spokesman insisted that the agency followed “protocols.” He did not provide the protocol details.

"In this case we interviewed the patient's sister since the patient had unfortunately died before we able to speak with him," the spokesman said. "[There] were multiple conversations in the months that followed."

But Rouse’s sister Patricia, and their brother, John, who is a civil court judge in Suffolk and a former prosecutor, insist the DOH did nothing to probe Rouse’s death and “ignored” their entreaties in calls they initiated to the DOH, not the other way around.

Meanwhile, several former city officials were thunderstruck to hear that the Health Department failed to inspect Rouse’s school after his death as a precaution to guarantee no child or teacher was at risk.

“There is no excuse other than inefficiency and sloppiness, or they did not care,” a former top city official said.  

“I understand they are trying to say the disease is fairly common, but even if they can’t look everywhere, you would think they would at least check the school and towers around it, to make sure there is no bacteria there since there are children and teachers,” the ex-official said.

The city did not say why they did not inspect Rouse’s school, and a Board of Education spokesman referred all queries to the Health Department.

Under intense scrutiny including from Gov. Cuomo, Mayor de Blasio on Saturday called the outbreak a “wake-up call.”

“The fact is we’re going to be handling things very differently in the future,” he said at a hastily called press conference.

The news that the city is finally going to visit the school was bittersweet for the Rouses because their brothers death has yet to be formally considered part of the outbreak.

"My brother was the canary in the coal mine," John Rouse has insisted.