When Schools Make Students Sick

March 13, 1995

Leaky roofs are one thing. Gas leaks are another. Schools have a responsibility under state law to promptly report gas leaks to emergency response officials. The potential consequences are highly dangerous, even if the immediate symptoms of those exposed are only headaches and nausea.

So Harford County's citation of the principal of Riverside Elementary School for violating the law on two occasions this year was amply justified. The citations should send a warning not only to the individual principal, but to the Harford County Board of Education that this law must be obeyed.

The health and safety of children, and of adults working in the schools, are at stake.

County Executive Eileen Rehrmann said that top school administrators should also have been cited for negligence, suggesting that the non-reporting violation is a recurring one in the county's schools. But whether cited or not, Superintendent Ray Keech and his staff are on public notice.

The incidents at Riverside Elementary, in Joppatowne, involved a carbon monoxide violation in late January and a natural gas leak in the kindergarten annex a week later. Parents picketed after pupils suffered headaches and reported being moved from room to room in the school.

The public protests also prodded Mrs. Rehrmann to find $900,000 in emergency funds to fix the leaking roof and the unreliable heating-cooling system this year; Harford will commit $400,000 and the governor is pledging $500,000 in state aid. School authorities, attempting to deflect criticism of the violations, unrepentantly declared that this had been their goal for four years.

Parent demonstrations over patently unsafe conditions in schools should not be necessary to get needed repairs. It may be more politically rewarding to build a new school, but it is more important to keep existing facilities safe and in proper working condition. The county executive and the school board need to give more attention to these projects when setting budget priorities.

Carbon monoxide detectors are now in Riverside as an interim precaution. But monitors are only useful if authorities make timely decisions on readings that stray into the warning zone, and alert the emergency center. We trust that message has been made clear to the entire Harford schools system.

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