MALIBU HIGH SCHOOL TEACHERS REFUSE RETURN TO TOXIC CLASSROOMS: No Confidence in Scope or Effectiveness of SMMUSD’s Clean-Up Plans

by Barry Fagan
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Teachers displaced from classrooms in a contaminated school complex are refusing to return to those facilities, according to a letter by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). The teachers are frustrated by the lack of completeness, consultation and candor from SMMUSD officials overseeing a hurried clean-up effort at Malibu Middle and High Schools.

The teachers were moved out of their classrooms after 20 teachers came forward last October to complain about a number of health problems they and their students had been experiencing, such as rashes, migraines and hair loss. Perhaps most seriously, three teachers have developed thyroid cancer. The teachers had only recently learned that contaminated soil had been removed from a portion of the campus over two years earlier. Later, testing found PCBs in window caulk at levels above action levels.

During the Christmas/New Year break, the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District undertook a clean-up of selected classrooms and other facilities and has declared all the classrooms safe although the latest test results have yet to be analyzed. In a letter sent today to district officials, a dozen teachers strongly faulted the effectiveness, scope and integrity of the SMMUSD’s clean-up as well as the district’s changing, conflicting statements about what was being done and why:

“Nothing which has occurred since we left those classrooms gives us any confidence that they are now safe for our students or us. The problems and concerns listed below reflect an overriding lack of transparency and consultation with the teachers and other community members that has pervaded this process… even the District’s own Environmental Task Force was not consulted, resulting in many defects that would have been raised had all of us been consulted, possibly avoiding a largely wasted effort ….We cannot stress enough how the lack of consultation throughout this process has aggravated our concerns for the well-being of ourselves, our colleagues and our students.”

The district now claims to have discharged its prior environmental consultant, after paying his firm over $164,000, and is engaged in hiring a new firm to do the next unspecified phase of testing and decontamination. The teachers are requesting that they be consulted in developing the plan for the next phase, which should include –

Widely testing air, dust, and soil for all the contaminants, not just PCBs, that have been found on the campuses;

Re-testing the areas remediated during the break; and

Removing all “hazardous materials posing health risks or violating regulatory standards.”

“The teachers, parents and students on the front line of this situation need to be a meaningful part of the process,” stated PEER Senior Counsel Paula Dinerstein, whose organization has been assisting the teachers and other staff on the campuses and has been publicly warning the SMMUSD against “hasty but ill-conceived, incomplete and inadequate” reactions. “The teachers want a comprehensive inquiry to determine the source and scope of problems on campus.”

PEER is also trying to obtain all of the contracts and communications with the district’s consultant and law firm. A recent response from the School District Superintendent Sandra Lyon to PEER’s letters on behalf of the teachers ignored requests for these materials, which PEER will now seek in a Public Records Act request.

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Barry Fagan
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