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Paramedics' Stunt May Lead to More Disciplinary Action

NEWARK, N.J. -- An investigation into last week's apparent hazing by paramedics at Newark's University Hospital that evoked images of the Ku Klux Klan could lead to additional disciplinary charges against other employees, officials of the state's medical university said yesterday.

Three paramedics involved in the incident were fired last week and William F. Owen Jr., president of the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, said investigators are looking to identify whether other emergency medical service workers were involved.

Three EMS workers at the university told The Star-Ledger at least four other employees - including a supervisor - were aware of the incident or were in the room at the time it happened, but have not been held accountable. The workers were not willing to be named for fear of losing their jobs.

Asked about those claims, university officials said only that the investigation was continuing.

"UMDNJ stands behind our investigative findings and the swift and decisive action taken in response to this intolerable behavior. Until a report is completed, we will not address any details of the investigation," spokesman Jerry Carey said.

The UMDNJ operates University Hospital and its EMS department.

Photos of the incident surfaced last week. They show two paramedic trainees wearing white sheets resembling Klan robes, while a University Hospital paramedic adjusts the sheets. One of the hooded figures is holding a wooden cross held together with surgical tape and gauze. None of those involved was a person of color.

The trainees were students from Northeastern University in Boston on clinical rotation with EMS crews as part of a certification course. UMDNJ officials say they were coerced to take part. Both left the university shortly after the incident and Northeastern officials say the two have retained legal counsel.

The three paramedics were terminated within days after the photos, taken by a cellphone camera, came to the attention of UMDNJ administrators.

Owen said yesterday he expects the investigation to be wrapped up within the next two weeks.

At the university's board of trustees meeting in New Brunswick yesterday, Owen gave a briefing on the episode and said at least two photos were circulated. He said the two Northeastern students gave a statement and investigators are looking to identify "other wrongdoers."

"It is unclear at this point whether this was a hazing, an initiation, a rite of passage or just plain old stupidity," Owen told the trustees.

Robert Del Tufo, chairman of the UMDNJ board of trustees, called the response by the university an example of how it has turned itself around since the scandals that had the medical school under the oversight of a federal monitor for two years.

"There has been a commitment to ferreting out wrongdoing," said Del Tufo, a former state attorney general. "This organization under Dr. Owen does not tolerate intolerance, but it also doesn't tolerate wrong-doing."

Owen said the university will soon meet with the Rev. Reginald T. Jackson, president of the state's Black Ministers Council, who has asked to sit down with hospital officials to address questions over whether the problems at the EMS department run deeper.

At the same time, he said, the university will look internally, with the aim of promoting "organizational tolerance" and training around diversity, professionalism and workplace ethics.

"We want to reassure the public that the actions of these few they have heard about are not reflective of UMDNJ," he said.

Angela Stewart may be reached atastewart@starledger.comor (973) 392-4178; Ted Sherman may be reached attsherman@starledger.comor (973) 392-4278.

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