The Herricks Board of Education fired the high school science teacher who faces a felony charge for admittedly injecting a 17-year-old friend of her son with a coronavirus vaccine at her home last December without his parent’s permission, state documents obtained by Newsday show.
The school board’s vote last month to terminate teacher Laura Parker Russo came after a state-appointed arbitrator sided with the district that the teacher’s actions constituted “misconduct” and “conduct unbecoming a teacher,” under state education law.
Russo admitted injecting her son’s friend with the coronavirus vaccine both in the arbitration hearings over the school's attempt to fire her, which were held over four days in September, and in a statement to Newsday on Monday.
“Usurping the proper authority of the parent of a minor by vaccinating that minor without permission violates the fundamental trust parents place in teachers,” arbitrator Thomas Lilly wrote in the 25-page report, obtained by Newsday on Monday under a Freedom of Information Law request.
Lilly added that the school district “is properly concerned about putting someone who treated safety procedures so cavalierly back in charge of a Science class” and also “about the reaction of parents and the community if Ms. Russo is returned to the classroom.”
Herricks school board President James Gounaris, in a statement that does not mention Russo by name, said school officials “took swift action to investigate the allegations” after receiving information “about an employee engaging in behavior outside of school that put the safety of a minor at risk.”
Christopher Powers, an attorney for Herricks from the Hauppauge-based law firm Ingerman Smith, said, “Due to Parker Russo’s incredibly poor judgment, the only viable and appropriate decision from the hearing officer was to terminate Parker Russo from her employment as a teacher in the Herricks School District.”
Russo, in an 835-word statement given to Newsday through her attorney, professed her love for teaching and the school district and said she believes termination is not proportionate with her otherwise “unblemished” 25-year track record.
“What I did was an egregious lapse of judgment that I deeply regret, but I did it to help a young man, not to harm him,” she said.
Her attorney, Melville-based Richard Hamburger, added, “If Laura had given an unauthorized flu shot to her son’s friend, there wouldn’t have been any media circus and she would not have been terminated.”
According to the documents Newsday received from the Herricks district, Russo testified before the arbitrator that she had obtained the Johnson & Johnson vaccine dose that she used to inject her son’s friend essentially by accident earlier that day.
Russo testified that when she brought her son to a pharmacy to receive a booster that day, last Dec. 31, she also asked the pharmacist for an empty vial to bring home to use as an ornament on her Christmas tree.
Instead, she said, the pharmacist gave her a vial with extra vaccine doses because they were going to be discarded.
Neither the pharmacist nor the pharmacy is named in the arbitrator’s report.
In her statement to Newsday, Russo said, “Clearly, I should not have administered the J&J vaccine to anyone when I returned home with the vial containing four viable doses, but my son’s friend said he was not vaccinated and wanted to be vaccinated, I thought he was 18, and I did not know that the J&J vaccination had not been approved for persons under 18.”
Russo added, “What motivated my actions was a desire to help, not harm, and to protect my family and my community from acquiring COVID. There was no personal gain in what I did.”
After the 17-year-old informed his mother of the vaccination, Nassau police arrested Russo Jan. 1. She was charged with unauthorized practice of a profession, a felony.
The Nassau District Attorney’s Office said Monday the case is pending, awaiting action by a grand jury.
Prosecutors previously made a plea offer that included a pathway to a clean criminal record, “based on the defendant’s long-standing ties to the community and her lack of a criminal record,” Nassau District Attorney’s Office spokesman Brendan Brosh said in June.
Three Herricks school administrators testified before the arbitrator in September that the vaccination incident disqualified her from returning to the classroom, despite her otherwise unblemished teaching record. High school principal Joan Keegan said she “violated … the trust that parents have in the school.”
Since-retired Superintendent Fino Celano described Russo's “demeanor” in a video of the vaccine injection “to be disturbing.” According to the arbitrator’s report, the video showed Russo smiling while injecting the boy with the vaccine and saying, “You’ll be fine, I hope.” Russo, in her statement to Newsday, said she smiled to put the boy at ease during the injection and that the comment was meant to be lighthearted.
Attorney Karen Johnston, who represents the 17-year-old and his family, said the video of the encounter made clear that he hesitated to take the shot, but Parker was the one “who tells him it’s a good idea.”
Johnston also said Monday upon hearing of the teacher’s firing that the action was one her clients would find appropriate.
"She has definitely lost her ability to comprehend right from wrong," said the teen's mom, Lisa Doyle, of Glen Cove. "She got what she deserves and the only reason she regrets it is because she got caught."
Russo made $147,987 in the 2020-21 school year, according to the Newsday database of public schoolteacher and administrator salaries.
With Bridget Murphy