Children of 'sick school' ignored Parents complain that officials fail to question students

Building closed for 5th day

Probe continues of illness, possible botched renovations

April 10, 1996|By Marego Athans and Lisa Respers | Marego Athans and Lisa Respers,SUN STAFF

Amid all the environmental testing conducted last week at Deer Park Elementary School, one factor seemed to be overlooked: the children.

Students who complained of headaches, respiratory problems and other ailments were not tested or interviewed, making it difficult to determine how many students have been affected by contaminants in the school, which was closed March 27.

And the absence of hard evidence is fueling the controversy around the Baltimore County school system's handling of what appears to be a botched renovation project.

"Everybody has been putting a sick school ahead of our kids' education and their health," parent Theresa Shelley said yesterday. "No one has come to us to ask us what our children's symptoms have been."

As children missed their fifth straight school day yesterday, the uproar over potential health hazards at the school drew concern and promises from school district leaders and even the State House.

Raymond C. Feldmann, a spokesman for Gov. Parris N. Glendening, said Deer Park parents received a call yesterday morning from a staff member who will look closely at the issue to determine the extent of the school's problems.

Dunbar Brooks, chairman of the school board's building committee, called for a listing of all school buildings with potential health or safety hazards, and procedures to prevent a repeat of the Deer Park crisis.

Superintendent Anthony G. Marchione on Monday promised to create a system to prevent protracted building troubles.

After pressure from parents, the school was closed three days before spring vacation. Tests later showed problems with heating and ventilation systems, and evidence of leaking ethylene glycol -- an antifreeze.

At one point, more than 200 students were kept home in protest after parents said many of them had complained of illnesses.

Until the school closed, district officials maintained there were no serious problems in the building. But interviews with school and health officials showed that ventilation problems have dogged the school since it reopened in the fall of 1994 after a $1.5 million renovation, and teachers and students have complained of illness and discomfort ever since.

Dr. Shirin deSilva, who supervised the recent testing, said 34 of the school's 36 teachers completed a health survey aimed at discovering their symptoms and a possible link to conditions at the school. Teachers were allowed anonymity in filling out the survey but two-thirds of them put their names on the questionnaire anyway, Dr. deSilva said.

Children, however, were not tested or interviewed to find any link between building contaminants and illness, because the case apparently fell outside both county and school district purview.

County health officials do not routinely test for illness unless they suspect an outbreak of communicable or contagious disease. School officials didn't call in the health department, maintaining to this day that there is no hard evidence that the building is unsafe.

"We were not contacted by anyone, parents or the school system, until we were notified to come in and evaluate the air quality," said county Health Officer Dr. Michelle D. Leverett, a former private practice pediatrician. "There was evidence early on that this was not a case of an outbreak."

Dr. Leverett said anecdotal evidence from the school nurse about student complaints pointed instead to "the sensitivity of some of the students to the conditions in the building." That was reinforced, she said, by symptoms parents described to her at a meeting last week.

But parents complain they should have been questioned earlier. And they say the only documentation of children's symptoms has been in questionnaires distributed by a parent committee.

"Over 100 questionnaires have been gathered, with more still lTC coming in from parents outlining similar symptoms among the students," said Michael Johnson, a member of the parent committee.

"So many studies are being done in regards to the building that perhaps a study of what's going on with the children would help to add another piece to this puzzle."

Mr. Brooks said last night that the school system failed in communication.

Though the new heating and ventilation system has been malfunctioning since it was installed in fall 1994, the school board first learned of the problems -- and the complaints of illness -- when angry parents stormed the board's March 26 meeting.

The facilities department should have assessed immediately what was needed to repair the system, Mr. Brooks said, and county health officials should have been alerted to complaints of illness tied to the building.

The school board's building committee should have known about the problems long ago, he added, especially if the district needed to investigate whether hired contractors had bungled the renovation.

Under the best circumstances, he said, such a case "would literally engage the entire upper echelon of the school system."

Board President Calvin Disney agreed yesterday that the project was apparently botched, but he wouldn't comment further, saying he needs more information. The school district is conducting an internal audit of the project to find out what went wrong.

"The people in charge of the operation of schools should have taken care of the problem. Until we find out whether they did or not, I'm not going to be premature."

Pub Date: 4/10/96

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