This School May Cause Cancer

The stalled reconstruction of Deerfield Middle School has littered the campus with a carcinogen. So why are students still there?

Pass continued to refuse the school board's demolition demands, however, and complained that tearing down the building would spread asbestos fibers throughout the schoolyard, harming anyone there. But records show that the construction company was flexible. Pass owner Roger Rex gave the school board an option: He told officials at a July job-site meeting that he would demolish the building as long as the board signed federal forms authorizing the demolition and took "full responsibility" for any legal or health fallout from it. Rodriguez-Soto told Rex that the board would consider the proposal. Board staff never agreed to it.

At the end of August, summer vacation ended and students filed back onto the Deerfield Middle campus. Not only had Building No. 2 never been properly cleaned after the alleged illegal and sloppy asbestos abatement by Decon in June, but now there was evidence that the air inside the empty building was contaminated. Students, teachers, and staff, however, were not notified of the full extent of the problems with Building No. 2 or the nearby Building No. 6. According to the Pass lawsuit, Decon removed 1800 square feet of ACM from Building No. 6 at Deerfield Middle in May, again without notifying the government, and left more ACM littering school grounds, a piece of which New Times had tested.

In mid-September the EPA released its findings to the county and the school board: The red-backed ceiling tile was potentially more harmful than even Pass had imagined. The EPA tests showed that school board samples collected by Norton were laden with as much as 13 percent asbestos. The EPA determined that a sample collected by Hahne -- in which the county found no asbestos -- actually contained about 7 percent asbestos. A total of ten samples that either the school board or the county found harmless were proven by the EPA to contain unsafe amounts of asbestos.

Joe Forkan

The EPA's results using the less-accurate PLM method were mixed -- about half came back showing more than 1 percent of asbestos. But even when the EPA's most sophisticated tests showed that the building had ACM in it, the county and the school board balked and still resisted cleaning it. Hahne wouldn't recognize the EPA results. "To me that is completely meaningless -- those [EPA] tests mean nothing to me," he says. The reason: The EPA's test is more sophisticated than what is called for by federal regulations and therefore shouldn't hold legal weight.

Earlier this month EPA officials from Atlanta and Washington, D.C., got county and school board officials on a four-way call, Hahne says. EPA officials told the school board that they had to demolish the building, says Hahne. Decon is now in the process of removing the ceiling tile and cleaning out Building No. 2. Pass' concerns about Building No. 6, however, still haven't been addressed, Diaz says. And the pieces of cement with asbestos that litter the school grounds are still, as far as is known, lying there.

The asbestos "DANGER" signs were put back on Building No. 2 -- and this time they haven't been ripped down.

The PTA's Swinford has dealt with the school board for years. His daughter is an eighth grader at Deerfield Middle, and he's currently the chairman of Deerfield Middle's Advisory Forum, which makes recommendations on child safety. Like most people who are outside the school board's tight facilities-department loop, Swinford wasn't informed of the asbestos problems at Deerfield Middle. He says it doesn't surprise him, as anytime parents have concerns about the renovation project, they've been "stonewalled" by school board staff.

Swinford did say something interesting when he learned of the November 4 episode. He says he was "amazed," but not surprised. Swinford has dealt often enough with the vast school board bureaucracy -- which has a $2.2 billion annual budget -- to know better than to expect sound decisions and forthrightness from it. The construction department is currently being reinvestigated by the State Attorney's Office after an extensive state grand jury investigation two years ago that uncovered corruption and tens of millions of wasted dollars but produced no criminal charge. School board members themselves often complain that they don't trust officials in the construction department and new Superintendent Frank Till is pushing to have a private company come in and take over.

"This board isn't about children, and I don't think it ever has been," Swinford says. "You would want them to put education and safety of children first, but they don't. It's power they care about."

Swinford wasn't the only one kept out of the loop. Deerfield Middle principal Walter Cooper also says he has little understanding of the complex asbestos issues at his school.

"Of course I'm concerned," Cooper says of the asbestos problems. "A lot is being said about the building and about the school. But I can't get myself involved in something I can't control."

And the school board is still, to borrow Swinford's word, stonewalling. School board officials have steadfastly refused comment on Deerfield Middle asbestos issues. When asked if he would explain the school board's actions at Deerfield Middle, Gonzalez said, "Absolutely not." Gonzalez and other officials are staying quiet, they say, because of the Pass lawsuit. School board attorney Ed Marko says he made the recommendation that officials keep mum on the issue. But school board member Kraft, when she learned of the problems, said she's going to find out more.

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