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Former safety officer wins suit

| Friday, Nov. 8, 2002, 12:00 p.m.

A federal jury in Pittsburgh on Thursday awarded a former school safety officer $215,592, finding that Pittsburgh City Schools and two officials retaliated against him after he complained to state and federal agencies about racial discrimination in the school safety department.

Former officer Ronald Mancini, 59, of Mt. Washington, sued the school district and school officials — including his one-time boss, Robert Fadzen, chief of the Pittsburgh school safety department — saying Fadzen retaliated against him when he exposed the chief's plan to replace older, black officers with younger, white men.

The jury of three men and four women — one juror was excused during the trial — said Fadzen and Lee B. Nicklos, former human relations director for Pittsburgh schools, violated the state Whistleblower Act when they demoted Mancini in 1998 and that the school district violated the 1964 Civil Rights Act when Mancini was demoted. Pat Crawford, school district spokeswoman, said the district will appeal.

The jury exonerated Fadzen and Nicklos of allegations they violated Mancini's free speech rights and exonerated the school district of allegations it violated the state whistleblower law.

"It was a long, hard-fought battle and a lot of heartache and grief," Mancini said. "My wife and I deserve a break. We'll pick up the pieces of our lives and move on."

Mancini complained to the school district in 1998 about racial discrimination against blacks in the department. Mancini, who is white, had been chief of investigations at the time. He also filed complaints with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission.

Mancini also agreed to testify on behalf of Duane Williams, a black school safety officer who complained to the state and federal civil rights agencies that blacks in the department were discriminated against in promotions. Mancini eventually testified before the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission that Fadzen had a plan to replace older black school safety officers with younger white men.

Several months later, the school district fired Mancini, then reinstated him at a lower-level, lower-paying position. Mancini said at the time Fadzen began a smear campaign, saying Mancini had botched investigations.

Vickie L. Beatty, attorney for the school district, said she is "disappointed" by the jury's ruling. Fadzen did not immediately return calls, and his attorney, Robert L. McTiernan, declined to comment.

"It gives Ron some vindication," said Edward Olds, Mancini's attorney. "The jury believed Ron reported, in a good faith manner, some wrongdoing and was retaliated (against)."

The trial before Senior U.S. District Judge William L. Standish began Oct. 15. During the trial, Standish dismissed Mancini's claims that Christine Gmys, a school safety officer, and Henry Benz, former pupil affairs director who is now an assistant principal at Taylor Allderdice High School in Squirrel Hill, retaliated against him. Standish also dismissed Mancini's allegations of a conspiracy among school district officials to get rid of him.

After Mancini and several black safety officers complained about Fadzen in 1999, the school district launched an investigation. School officials learned Fadzen allegedly had referred to some black officers as "monkeys" and suspended him in 1998, but reinstated him later that year after the investigation was completed.

Mancini was suspended based on Fadzen's claims that Mancini botched investigations, misplaced or destroyed evidence and solicited officers to contribute to school board members' election campaigns. Mancini testified during the trial that Fadzen fabricated those claims after he accused Fadzen of racism.

The district reinstated Fadzen in July 1998, but fired Mancini. A month later, Mancini, a 22-year veteran, was rehired as a patrolman, at nearly half his previous $40,000 salary. The school district rehired him because it failed to follow proper procedures for his suspension. Mancini didn't return to his position as investigations chief because Fadzen said he had eliminated the job.

Mancini is on a retirement disability after being injured in a fall on a school stairway in December 1998.

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