Letter to Anne Larner December 12, 1995

Letter to Anne Larner, Newton Public Schools School Committee
From Ellie Goldberg, December 12, 1995
Dear Ms. Larner,

I am a parent with two daughters at Newton North. Susie Heyman suggested I write to you to express my concern about the lack of a comprehensive coordinated system to address health and safety issues at Newton North. I enclose two of three reports by inspectors of the Division of Occupational Hygiene.

I have been concerned about hazardous chemicals and poor ventilation at NNHS since February 1994 when I was sickened by fumes in the corridor outside the auto body and graphic arts classrooms. I learned that neither the school nor Newton's health department had the mandated Material Safety Data Sheets that are required where hazardous chemicals (such as solvents) are used. I learned that school staff had not had the required training necessary to protect students from physical and chemical hazards or unsafe conditions in labs or shops. I also learned that there were long-standing ventilation problems although the schools have a contract with a company that apparently responds only to temperature issues.

I joined the NN Health and Safety committee hoping it would be a forum for working on ventilation, health and safety issues, especially to promote the right to know and hazards training that would enable teachers to use and teach safety standards and practices. However, the people on the committee are interested in health education topics (drugs, smoking, AIDS) and have no background in air quality or basic safety. Mr. Marini has delegated to Ed Lareau, head of the Technical Vocation Dept., the burden of dealing with the reports of the Division of Occupational Hygiene but he has said as recently as the December 5 meeting that he had neither the expertise nor the time to deal with the problems. Discussion at committee meetings is hurried, vague and unfocused and there has been no documentation to clarify exactly who has taken responsibility for corrections or what has been accomplished. In fact, I have discovered that there is no one in the school system or among the city's agencies whose priority or responsibility is health and safety.

As an educational consultant who specializes in issues affecting students with chronic health conditions, I am aware of both the health problems caused by poor ventilation and toxic exposures in schools and the personal and institutional liability these practices incur. As a parent, my frustration was heightened when, this fall, my daughter had a reaction (including severe nausea, hives and rashes, eye and nasal irritation, and breathing difficulty) caused by a mix of fumes in the lower gym. In addition to floor sealant fumes there was roof and boiler work being done in the building without ensuring that fumes and vapors were properly vented. (See Reva's essay attached.) Other students were also ill but the nurse has told me she has no knowledge of how to systematically collect or evaluate health complaints to track potential hazardous exposure or ventilation problems in the building.

The enclosed health and safety inspection reports identified many health and safety hazards. And, although most corrections in the March 23 report were promised by June '95, little was done until this fall. Some jobs are still "out to bid." One attempt to correct a situation was inappropriate, i.e., a ceiling fume hood was installed in the graphic arts room where it does not protect students from inhaling solvent fumes.

Mike Castro, the fire dept. safety inspector, has told me that, unlike local businesses, the school has no safety policy or plan, and that obtaining information, such as chemical inventories, from the school has always been difficult. His perception is that school staff view safety rules as a nuisance. Although various "inspections" are done, the school staff does not understand the limited role and jurisdiction of each inspector and the school has a false sense of security that what ever an inspector doesn't catch is okay.

I am concerned that Mr. Marini has repeatedly refused to inform parents who have a right to know about the specific nature and extent of the hazards their children are exposed to, especially unacceptable conditions such as the dust in the carpentry shop (note that wood dust is listed as carcinogenic) or the unventilated photo lab. In contrast, the school has publicized its efforts to remedy the failure of the evacuation system. And, the school paper reported erroneously that there were no safety problems serious enough to shut down any activity. In fact, Mr. Whelan identified several problems as "imminent dangers" and the carpentry finishing area was locked.

Mr. Marini also rejected my suggestion that activities or operations that were not immediately corrected should be stopped until conditions were improved. Although reassured by the DOH inspector that many of the conditions, such as the unventilated shops or labs, were not "immediately life threatening", I would hope that the school would provide students a larger margin of safety. I certainly will ask the school to provide an alternative photography course for my daughter if the ventilation in the photo lab is not corrected (as promised during winter break.)

I am aware of the Inspector General's report on the excess costs and problems of Needham's Pollard School. It points out the risks of not devoting adequate resources to management and oversight. A volunteer committee of school staff and parent volunteers is inadequate to the task of overseeing complex, technical, problematic school operations and does not relieve the school system of responsibility for maintaining proper facilities, properly training staff, and following procedures that protect students from the kind of hazards identified in the reports. There is a need for management safeguards and a full-time professional manager to organize and coordinate complex multifaceted, multidisciplinary aspects of operations and facility management. In Needham, the lack of effective accountability, procedural lapses and poor record keeping not only made Needham vulnerable to fraud, waste and abuse but also led to significant health problems in students and staff.

Newton North needs the direction and oversight of someone with the knowledge and authority to raise standards and ensure proper procedures. I hope that by calling your attention to my concerns that a more efficient and appropriate system can be developed.

I look forward to your response. Best regards,

Ellie Goldberg, M.Ed.
Enclosures: DOH reports, Reva's school council essay, my Dec. 9 memo to Mr. Marini/Ed Lareau
(These reports are not attached to this blog but are available to interested readers. Call me 617 965-9637)

2006 Note: Safety standards still lacking in Newton

SOUTH LAB A STUDY IN OVERCROWDING, by Daniel E. Black/ Staff Writer

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

When class started two weeks ago, Mike Debuze, a sophomore at Newton South High School, was sitting on the floor. One of Debuze’s lab partners, Han Park, at least had a chair, but not a very good view of the board.

"It’s just really crowded," said Park of his 30-person Honors Chemistry class at South.

The recently-renovated classroom, part of the $60 million project at South, was built to accommodate 24 students at 12 lab stations. But it’s being used to hold 30 students, and teachers and students agree it’s pushed to the limit.

The bloated class size causes two main problems, according to teacher Alan Crosby. The extra chairs (if there are enough) in the lecture part of the room impede the flow of traffic during lab. Also, the lab stations are only designed to handle two students per bench.

One measure he’s taken to reduce collisions in the classroom with potentially dangerous chemicals is that Crosby now has students accumulate paper towels on their lab benches rather than walk to the trash barrel.

"We try to minimize travel," Crosby said, a proud stickler for the safety of his lab.

Even the students noticed that their bright, new classroom is flawed.

"You’d think when they say ’brand new classroom’ it’d be nice," said Debuze.

For the teacher, Crosby’s staging area to set up labs consists of a small sink with a three-foot countertop area and a rolling cart.

"It’s a running joke," said Crosby of his preparation workspace.

But, for Crosby and his students, the crowded classroom is no joke. Debuze, Park and Andrew Maguire - lab partners in this overcrowded chemistry class - were eager to discuss their angst over the class’ physical constraints.

"[With three people], one person just ends up watching," Park said. "We just rotate around."

Despite the class’s numbers, the students are well aware of the dangers.

"Mr. Crosby tells us the nice repercussions," Maguire said of the day’s titration lab with sodium hydroxide.

But for Crosby, safety is the primary concern, especially in this large class.

"He can’t see us all the time," Park said.

Ideally, Crosby said he should be able to see each pair’s working space, however, because of the overcrowding, he can’t.

"I want to push the envelope [academically]," Crosby said. "But, there are risk factors that have to be evaluated."

Crosby teaches four classes at South, two with 30 students each, and two with 24. The classes with 24 students are "much, much more comfortable," he said.

He focuses on teaching the students to control their exuberance in the lab area and be mindful of the chemicals they’re working with.

"The kids need to have a good respect for chemistry, not be afraid, but respectful," said Crosby, a long-time lab instructor at Boston University who joined South this past fall.

While Debuze, Park and Maguire complained of crowding in the lab, on the other end of the room squeezed into a corner, four sophomores made up a lab "pair."

"We need more space," said Stephanie Lee.

Lab partner, Yulia Podolny agreed that because of the crowding, "during labs it’s really hard."

She said that it’s also harder to get individual attention.

Other parts of the room have been missing other key elements. For more than a month in the fall, the room’s only fire extinguisher was taken for inspection, preventing Crosby from conducting certain labs.

The room is still without all the necessary items.

"There are certain things we won’t do without a fume hood," said Chuck Hurwitz, South’s science department chair.

Because of the multiple renovations to the science rooms at South over the past 10 years, there are five different classroom layouts. For Hurwitz, matching the class to the space is a matching game, one where the pieces don’t always fit smoothly.

Hurwitz said he’s concerned that the planned new high school for Newton North will face similar problems.

"It’s not just about square-footage," Hurwitz said. "My warning for North is ... [I] recommend against homogeneity. You have to designate for specific classes."

One such designation, for example, is that chemistry labs require more sinks than a physical science lab. Similarly, different subjects demand more counter space or storage room.

Of the recent renovations at South, Hurwitz said that the teachers who got involved were often misunderstood by the architects.

"The architect is much more in control of [the details] than you think," Hurwitz said. "They designed a homogenous room that’s good for the average class, but not good for anyone."

Since the 1960s, when the school had nine science rooms, South has steadily increased its total to 16 science rooms and nearly 20 faculty, some part-time. But, the numbers of students are growing fast, too.

Out of 1,700 students, approximately 1,560 are enrolled in a science class. The recent addition of popular courses such as astronomy and marine biology have particularly attracted seniors, who otherwise would have opted out of a science class.

Regardless of the way the classrooms are shaped, and what classes are being taught in the labs, the easiest way to fix the problem, and ensure safety, is to reduce the class size, said Hurwitz.

"We need classes back down to 24," Hurwitz said.

Hurwitz taught three classes with over 30 students in each, last year and said that maintaining safety becomes a real worry.

"Everybody understands the dangers of power tools," Hurwitz said of the similarities between science classes and woodworking. "It’s not easy getting done what you want to do."

Daniel E. Black can be reached at dblack@cnc.com or at 781-433-8216.

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For information on safety standards see: Safe Science Series: For Safety Sake: One Class Size Does Not Fit All! (The Navigator, September, 1999) (printer friendly PDF) http://nsela.org/publications/safescience/ss-article7.pdf

Dr. Ken Roy is the Director of Science & Safety for Glastonbury Public Schools in Glastonbury, CT, an authorized OSHA instructor, and a member of the Board of Directors of the Laboratory Safety Workshop. He is the author of this comprehensive and continuing series dedicated to the improvement of safety in the science classroom.