Parents criticize communication Say health concerns at Jeffers Hill not fully addressed

December 09, 1997|By Erin Texeira | Erin Texeira,SUN STAFF

Miscommunication and lack of information were the most difficult problems faced by parents when they tried to investigate the high number of health complaints at Columbia's Jeffers Hill Elementary School, they told the Howard County school board last night.

"The communication was not there," Kate Horter, a parent who is heading the effort to explain the health problems at the school, told board members. "If it had been, that might have prevented further problems from developing."

Board members and Jeffers Hill parents met last night at Howard County Department of Education headquarters. It marked the first time board members responded publicly to concerns from parents and staff members at Jeffers Hill that contaminated air in the school may be making students and faculty sick.

At the meeting, parents noted several examples of the lack of communication at the school.

In May, several parents requested data on school health room visits from the school's principal, Ruth Heath. But, they said, they did not receive the information until September -- and in the interim they were told the data was unavailable.

During the past several weeks, testing has been conducted at the school and repairs have been made to the aged heating and ventilation system. But when parents asked what work was being done and why, they received little or no information from Jeffers Hill officials, they said.

Board members agreed last night that certain protocols, including meticulous communication, should be followed when addressing such concerns at a school.

"It would be ideal to establish a time line of communication ahead of time with a parent or central office person," said Sandra French, school board chairwoman.

"It can't apply in this case because it's too late now. But it would be nice to have something in place countywide," French said.

At a meeting at 7: 30 tonight at Jeffers Hill, school officials will announce the results of extensive air quality tests conducted over the past several weeks at the 23-year-old school.

Joseph Coco, a certified industrial hygienist with Aerosol Monitoring and Analysis Inc., a Hanover-based environmental consulting firm, did preliminary tests in October and found evidence of possible microscopic contamination in the school's antiquated ventilation system and soiled carpeting.

Five people from Bushy Park Elementary in Glenwood also attended last night's meeting. Some parents there have expressed concern that something in the school building may be making children sick.

One parent sent a letter yesterday to Gov. Parris N. Glendening to voice her concerns.

"I've been doing nothing since September but trying to prove that my daughter is allergic to school," the parent, Veronika B. Carella, said before the meeting.

Carella's letter urged the governor to address school health and air quality issues throughout the state.

Concerns at Jeffers Hill were raised by figures showing that last year students visited the health room at a rate of 7.6 visits per student per year -- the highest in the Howard County system.

At Bushy Park, the figure was 3.1 visits, in line with the county average of 2.9 per student, according to statistics compiled by the county Department of Education.

Jeffers Hill parents, who have formed a PTA subcommittee to address the problem, are pushing county PTA officials to help them sign up for an indoor air quality program -- called Tools for Schools -- created and distributed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Anyone connected with a school can order the kit and use its detailed list of questions and charts to make preliminary findings about indoor air quality.

Schools can also register with the EPA to get training on how to identify and address indoor air quality problems -- a move favored by some parents at Jeffers Hill. They must first get the state Department of Education to endorse the program, Horter said.

Last night's meeting came two months after an article in The Sun described a pattern of chronic health complaints -- including headaches, stomachaches, blurred vision and inability to concentrate -- from students and staff at the school. The problems surfaced in the spring and escalated this school year.

Pub Date: 12/09/97

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