At least 300 angry parents of current and former students of Sussex Elementary School in Essex crowded into the cafeteria of another school last night and demanded answers about the future of their children's health from overwhelmed officials.
Their concern arose from tests showing that levels of asbestos fiber in the air of at least one classroom at Sussex are 30 times what is considered acceptable.
The Sussex school, in the 500 block of Woodward Drive, has been closed since last Friday. Testing revealed that asbestos sprayed on beams in the school's roof and walls had made its way into the 30-year-old building. The school will remain closed for 8 to 10 weeks for asbestos abatement, while children attend classes at other locations.
Last night's meeting at Deep Creek Middle School in Essex began quietly. But only minutes passed before parents were shouting their questions and leaving their seats to confront Baltimore County school officials.
"Why don't we have a doctor here?" yelled one woman. "Our main concern is the health of our children."
"Where is the White Lung Association?" shouted an angry father. "If you can't answer these questions, we'll wait until you can."
Cherie Caton, a mother of a first-grade student at Sussex, stormed up to the table at the front of the room and confronted Keith D. Kelley, assistant county superintendent for facilities.
"Asbestos has a long-term effect, maybe 45 years," she said angrily. "What did you think, because we're low income we'd just forget about it in a few weeks? This is wrong."
Parents expressed concern over the county's asbestos-testing procedure, which does not require that air samples be tested. Testing is done on a visual basis only, officials acknowledged.
"How do we know that the schools you'll be sending our kids to are any safer than Sussex?" asked parent Michael Grant.
"We're going to test air samples," promised Richard L. Barranger, assistant superintendent for the southeast area. "We think they're safe schools."
"We all thought Sussex was safe," Mr. Grant snapped.
Many parents said they would keep their children out of school until they receive the results of air tests from the buildings to be used temporarily.
"Why move them from one death trap to the next?" asked Mike Vaughan, father of a third-grader at Sussex.
Other parents wanted to know who would be responsible for paying for medical tests to determine whether their children had inhaled asbestos.
"We will be talking with the health department about that," Mr. Barranger said.
Many parents left the meeting saying their major concerns were not addressed.
"My biggest concerns are what are the chances, with the levels being so high, of my child getting cancer?" said Kim Roberts, whose kindergarten-age son has attended class since September in the room at Sussex that tested highest for asbestos fibers.
"He is afraid he is going to get cancer like his great-grandfather," Ms. Roberts said. "I don't know what to say to him."
While school officials promised parents that they would have a health department official available to answer their questions at a meeting in late February, parents insisted that four more weeks was too long to wait.
It was not clear whether a meeting would be rescheduled for an earlier date.