Teachers: Unhealthy conditions in classroom “may be worse than we originally thought”

FRANKLIN, OH (FOX19) - For more than 20 years, Kelly Brock's taught science class in the same school. The same building. In the same room.

But this year, she's had enough.

"I had to miss three days consecutively," Brock told FOX19 NOW last week, "which has never happened in my entire teaching career."

Brock's one of four Franklin High School teachers who are blowing the whistle on what they believe are unhealthy conditions inside their school.

The conditions, the teachers said, involve asbestos contamination, mold and high levels of carbon dioxide inside their classrooms.

"I can't keep my kids awake," Franklin high language arts teacher Selena Combs told FOX19 NOW investigative reporter Jody Barr.

Combs was pointing to a photograph of a carbon dioxide meter reading showing levels inside a classroom that reached 2,763 parts per million, a level nearly three-times higher than acceptable carbon dioxide levels for schools.

The teachers, believing they could be risking their jobs, decided to speak out about what they've found inside their school since October when dozens of teachers started complaining of illnesses.

"I think every parent in this community has a right to know the truth," Combs said, "I'm not afraid anymore because I'm willing to lose my job for these people."

"IT'S JUST NOT HEALTHY FOR US OR THE CHILDREN WE TEACH"

"It was the first week in October we really knew this might be bigger than we thought," Selena Combs said, describing the illness patterns teachers throughout Franklin High School started to notice soon after school started in August.

The four teachers we interviewed for this investigation told us around the end of September, they started noticing breathing problems, dizziness, nausea, headaches, nose bleeds and feeling "extremely lethargic" through the day.

A few days away from the school building over the weekends, the four said they noticed an immediate difference in their health. Most of the symptoms they were feeling eased off.

By mid-day Monday, those ailments were back in full-force.

The symptoms were also impacting students, the teachers said. Some students were also complaining of sore throats.

Sometime in October, the teachers started mentioning their symptoms to one another and noticed similarities. Soon after, they decided to send a mass e-mail, asking other staffers whether they were also noticing health problems since school started in August.

"It was shocking that almost half of our staff responded to that e-mail within a few days," Combs said, "We started comparing our symptoms and then we started seeing that we had the same symptoms."

Teachers throughout the building started photographing what appeared to be mold, leaking pipes, suspected asbestos and water damage.

{DAMAGE PICTURES: These are the pictures Franklin High School teachers sent to state inspectors and to their administration}

"Then, we all started researching and figuring out, well, why are the kids sick? Why are the students sick? Why are they getting nose bleeds and why are there headaches and why they can't stay awake and they're dizzy in our classes and complaining of vertigo and nausea," Spanish teacher Veronica Brightman said.

DOCUMENTED ASBESTOS, MOLD, CARBON DIOXIDE 

The teachers grew suspicious of whether the findings of a 2012 asbestos report might have been playing a part in what seemed to them to be a wave of illness sweeping the school this year.

Franklin High School was under a three-year asbestos inspection plan and a re-inspection was due in April 2015. The 2015 re-inspection showed multiple areas throughout the building that contained dozens of pieces of what inspectors labeled "assumed asbestos containing materials."

Most of those items were in classrooms.

The report shows multiple items suspected of containing asbestos were in poor condition and recommended repair.

Several Franklin High School teachers notified administrators in October, detailing the health problems they were experiencing and what they believed could have been causes. A few days later, Superintendent Dr. Michael Sander said he ordered air quality testing and a follow up asbestos inspection for the school.

“That’s the big thing for us. We want to find out what’s not good so we can fix it,” Sander said in an interview last week.

MOLD TESTING:

On Oct. 12, the district paid m.a.c Paran Consulting Services, Inc. to perform mold testing inside of 10 rooms at the high school. The test consisted of air samples and the report does not show any surface mold testing of any of the mold documented by teachers.

The report shows 80 percent of the rooms tested showed "moderate" and "high" scores for mold. The score meant the mold the test collected from those rooms indicated a "low, medium or high likelihood that the spores detected originated from an indoor source," the Paran report stated.

It would take another couple of weeks before the district could get into the school to clean the areas detailed in the mold report. After the cleaning, the mold problem was corrected in all the rooms except the band room, Sander said.

The mold testing did not satisfy the teachers who'd brought the problems inside the school to the administration.

"From there, the administration kind of zipped up because they were satisfied with the mold results, which were moderate, low; it depends. And, it was an airborne test, it wasn't an actual surface sample test," Brightman said.

“I don’t know how you call that thorough,” Brockman told FOX19 NOW, “And, testing four rooms in a building is not acceptable when most of the rooms that were tested were not rooms of teachers that were complaining of being sick.”

CARBON DIOXIDE:

The same consulting company hired to test the air quality at Franklin High School was also hired to run carbon dioxide testing inside five classrooms. The test happened Jan. 10-11, 2017.

The consultants placed meters in five classrooms, measuring the highest and lowest carbon dioxide level, then taking an average to determine the overall level for the final report.

The firm found "high" levels of carbon dioxide in three of the five classrooms. One other classroom didn't yield a reading because of a "sensor malfunction," the report shows, and the fifth classroom is noted as having "acceptable" carbon dioxide levels.

The report shows that fifth room recorded a carbon dioxide level of 1,241-ppm.

The consultant's report shows the recommended maximum carbon dioxide levels in a school to be 1,000 parts per million. That recommendation comes from the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air Conditioning Engineers.

None of the maximum levels inside the five classrooms was below the 1,000-ppm mark, the report shows. The report shows Classroom 109 reached 2,768 ppm at one point, nearly three-times the recommended maximum of carbon dioxide level.

“Even at the high points in the classrooms, they’re nowhere near where it would have any danger to any staff member or any students,” Sander said.

Each of the four teachers we interviewed for this report disagreed, telling us their students—and the teachers in those rooms—were experiencing symptoms related to elevated carbon dioxide levels.

ASBESTOS TESTING:  

On Nov. 23, m.a.c Paran Consulting Services, Inc. inspected Franklin High School, looking deeper into the asbestos condition inside. The firm found multiple areas in need of immediate repair and the district made some of those repairs.

The district paid the firm to perform lab testing on materials "assumed" to contain asbestos so the district would know for sure what materials in what rooms actually contained asbestos. The lab results were delivered to the district offices at the end of December, Sander said.

The report shows 149 samples from 38 different areas of the school. Of those 149 samples, 69 were found to contain asbestos. The rooms with at least one asbestos-containing material out of the 69 samples are:

-Room 102/P1 Room

-Room 108

-Room201

-Room 202

-Room 203

-Room 206

-Room 207

-Room 208

-Room 220

-Second Floor Publication Room

-Cafeteria

-Gym Stage

-Band room

The report does not indicate whether every room in the building was sampled.

The consulting firm determined only one area was in immediate need of repair: the 64 pipe fittings that make up the air handler systems in the gym. The firm rated the condition of the asbestos-containing insulation at those fittings at a "hazard rank" of 6 out of 7, according to the November 2016 report.

A hazard ranking of seven is the worst-case scenario, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency scale.

A hazard rank of six indicates "potential significant damage."

The teachers we interviewed each expressed concern over the asbestos insulation inside the gym, noting the vibrations from daily use and games could shake the insulation loose, sending asbestos particles into the air.

Dr. Sander disagreed.

"Now realize, those (fittings) are up in a catwalk. They are not accessible by students, you actually have to have a key to get into this area to go up the steps to go into the catwalk," Sander said.

The air handlers are walled in, but those walls do not reach the top of the ceiling, leaving a gap for air to pass.

"The inspectors, yesterday, went up and inspected that and there were no issues with those yesterday," Sander said.

On Feb. 23, we watched three inspectors from the Ohio Public Employment Risk Reduction Program (PERRP) walk into Franklin High School alongside Dr. Sander. The inspectors were there to investigate and inspect the allegations teachers sent the agency weeks ago.

A 56-page complaint letter, dated Feb. 7, 2017, was sent to PERRP's offices by "Employees of Franklin High School." Two weeks later, inspectors were at the school.

After a more than four-hour inspection, the inspectors left. The inspectors returned to the school Feb. 28 for interviews with teachers.

We do not know when the PERRP report will be finished.

"I WOULD SEND MY KIDS TO THAT SCHOOL"

"If I did not feel it was safe for students and staff, there is no way we would have one day of school in that building. That's how strongly I feel about the safety of our students and staff," Franklin Schools Superintendent, Dr. Michael Sander said.

"I even said, I feel comfortable enough about this that: 1, I would send my kids to that school and 2, I would put my office over there," Sander said in our Feb. 24 interview.

Sander checked staff absences this year and told FOX19 NOW, teachers had missed eight days more this school year when compared to this point in the previous school year. "The trend is really very similar. I'm not doubting that maybe some staff members are more ill than they were last year, but you've got other staff members that are healthier than they were last year.

Student attendance was also similar to last year, according to the numbers Sander provided us during the interview. At this point in the 2015-2016 school year, student attendance was at 94.07 percent. So far this school year, Sander said students had missed more school with a 93.7 percent attendance rate.

Sander insisted the mold and asbestos problems had been remediated and the only outstanding problems are 18 work orders created the day PERRP inspectors visited the high school on Feb. 23.

One work order was for "a gate/cage needs to be added to the access ladder on the stage" to prevent people from reaching the catwalk access. That information came from a spreadsheet Sander provided us during our Feb. 24 interview.

The teachers don't believe parents who send their kids to Franklin High School have had enough information to make a call on whether the school is safe enough.

ONE MORE POTENTIAL CAUSE?

Despite the reports and data compiled by the district's hired consulting company, the teachers we interviewed said the symptoms they've experienced since August still linger.

The teachers think they might have a major contributor tracked down: Franklin High School's HVAC system.

"We don't believe the systems are pulling in enough fresh air to remove the carbon dioxide from the classrooms," Selena Combs said. "The units are dirty and who knows what's floating around inside those vents," Combs added.

The district contends, the sources that could have led to complaints of sickness among teachers and students have all been corrected. The teachers told us, there's no way.

Aside from potentially not working efficiently, the teachers complained to the state that the HVAC units inside their classrooms are too loud to run while they teach.

Included a complaint letter from the teachers to the EPA, there's a picture of a decibel meter registering a reading of 75.4 dB, a level equal to a vacuum cleaner, according to a government decibel comparison chart.

Sander said inspectors discussed the decibel levels during the Feb. 23 visit and found no problems, "It would have to be 80 decibels for eight hours," Sander said, explaining what inspectors told him during the visit. The inspectors, Sander said, used their own decibel meter to measure HVAC units during their visit.

"Why do you believe these folks are still—today—speaking out about the conditions in that school," Barr asked Sander. "I don't know. I don't know. If I knew what the issue was that we could fix, I would fix it right away. I really, honest to goodness, I don't know," Sander said.

"You're not disputing that you've had multiple notices from staff that people are not feeling well by being in that building," Barr asked Sander, "Correct. And, we've addressed the issues," Sander replied.

{VIDEO: HVAC unit recorded at 75.4 decibels was video recorded by a source inside the high school on Feb. 27, 2017}

Sander said he's currently in the process of having one last check performed on the air quality issues. He's scheduling Johnson Controls to perform an assessment of the current HVAC system. If the system in place now isn't getting the job done, Sander said he'll do whatever it takes to make it right.

"If that doesn't solve the problem, then we'll see what else we can look at that may be causing them issues and to be honest, I don't know what that could be, but we'll look and see," Sander said.

{EXTENDED INTERVIEW: Franklin City Schools superintendent Dr. Mike Sander defends his administration's work to address health complaints from his teachers about Franklin High School}

"The clear message from the administration is, there is nothing here to worry about with the conditions inside that building. Do you all—having just left that building—buy that," Barr asked the four teachers.

"No, absolutely not," each answered.

"We need action and we need it to be taken seriously and not dismissed. Whether the report says there's this or this, we're telling you that there's something wrong and it needs to be figured out," science teacher Kelly Brock said.

"Your job is your job, but your health is not negotiable," Brock said.