Parents threaten county schools with lawsuit over Deer Park Attorney expects to act by end of next week

April 26, 1996|By Lisa Respers | Lisa Respers,SUN STAFF

A group of Deer Park Elementary School parents has retained a lawyer for what could become a multimillion-dollar lawsuit against the Baltimore County school system over unhealthy conditions at the school.

Attorney Harvey L. Okun said yesterday that he plans to file suit in Baltimore County Circuit Court by the end of next week against the county Board of Education and "those individuals and companies that have been responsible for the injuries and conditions of those at the school."

Mr. Okun said he has 25 parents, teachers and other staff members at Deer Park as plaintiffs and is talking to others about joining in the litigation.

"Basically, we have hit just the tip of the iceberg," Mr. Okun said. "The suit is potentially open to anyone who has worked or attended the school since its inception and has been injured."

Donald I. Mohler, spokesman for the county schools, declined to comment, saying officials were not aware of the planned litigation. "All I can say is that we have been pleased, up to this point, that all of the tests conducted by the county have shown no air or water quality problems at the school."

Teacher and student complaints of respiratory problems, headaches, rashes and vomiting prompted parents to keep their children home and forced the eventual closing of the building for tests last month for testing.

The tests found problems in the heating and ventilation system, which also was leaking an antifreeze substance.

A recent study commissioned by the county chronicled a litany of mistakes by school facilities officials in the choice and operation of the heating and ventilation system installed 18 months ago during a $1.5 million renovation.

Robert F. Dashiell, a member of the county school board, said he was not surprised that a lawsuit was being considered.

"The allegations haven't been proven, which they'd have to do, but certainly from a hypothetical point of view -- given what we know about the kind and extent of contamination that existed -- it is certainly possible that a great number of people could have been harmed," he said.

"Whether or not these parties can prove they were among those harmed remains to be seen," Mr. Dashiell said.

Mr. Okun said the lawsuit will allege negligence on the part of school officials in keeping the 28-year-old building open and requiring students and staff to be there.

The suit also will claim that school officials have not provided quality education for its 500 students because they were in an unhealthy environment.

The students and staff were moved last week to Deer Park Middle and Magnet School and Hernwood Elementary.

Michael Johnson, who was listed as a plaintiff and is chairman of a parent committee on problems at the school, said he believed school officials failed to protect the students.

Parents got involved out of concern for their children and not money, he said.

"At no point during this whole debacle has anyone mentioned money except for the Baltimore County school system," said Mr. Johnson, whose daughter is a Deer Park fifth-grader.

"Whenever we talked about practical and reasonable solutions to the problems, their response has been budgetary concerns and time," he said.

Parent Wayne King said he voiced concern when his son became extremely ill in February 1995, with symptoms similar to those that occurred when the discovery of bacteria and contaminants prompted Deer Park's closing for the renovation in 1993.

Mr. King said the leaking antifreeze that was the initial focus of complaints last month was "only the lightning rod."

"The bigger picture here is that the school has had problems since the beginning, and that is what the school board is dancing around."

Pub Date: 4/26/96

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