Let me tell you just a little bit more about what’s going on here.
Our town’s public elementary school is 90 years old. Which is neat because my grandmother went to school there and not so neat because it hasn’t been well maintained. The house where I live is also around 90 years old, it has been very well looked after.
When we first toured the school Ellie was in preschool. It was easy to notice the shabbiness. It’s 90 years old. Things get shabby. But it was also quaint and mades me think of Great Gran (who was still around then) and the main building looks like the school in A Christmas Story. The external wings are cinderblock nightmares – but that’s beside the point. I made the comment to the woman giving us the tour that the Alabama Fire Code must be much more relaxed than Georgia’s or Virginia’s (two states where I’ve had more than one encounter with Fire Marshals in public buildings). It was really really clear that the facility needed to be replaced about twenty-and-then-some years ago.
But I made some assumptions about how the people at the school had been dealing with this building for years. I assumed that the people who needed to be were On Top Of Things because the building was old and they knew it needed extra care. I assumed that the building was looked after and that all the old building problems (asbestos, lead paint, pipes and electrical problems) were well documented and kept in order. I assumed that the shabbiness was just day to day wear but that the building was OK underneath. And we decided to send her to kindergarten.
Y’all. Never assume.
At the beginning of this year when I started doing more PTO stuff, I started spending a whole lot more time in the buildings. When you spend time in places, you start to notice things. One day I was making copies in the workroom and looked up to see that the vents were completely filthy. Someone else said moldy looking. Then someone pointed out exposed wiring on the outside of the building. And peeling paint. And soft spots in the floor. And I wondered, if they aren’t looking after the stuff everyone can see…what about the stuff everyone can’t see? We started paying a lot more attention to the building.
Then one day in February, it turns out that it’s not that the Alabama Fire Code is more lenient, it’s just that nobody legitimate had inspected the building in years. The school was put on Fire Watch and all the smoke detectors were replaced faster than I’ve ever seen them do anything to that building. Fire Watch means there has to be an actual person walking around the school every 15 minutes to look for fires because the place is in such sad shape. There was never any information sent home to the parents about the fire safety issues.
Then the woman leading the charge called me and said, “Hey, have you read the EPA’s requirements for managing asbestos in public school buildings?” I hadn’t. But I did and I started to panic a little because there were a whole lot of those requirements that weren’t getting done. Not even a little bit. Not even for the kids who had passed through the school years before. Then I read the EPA’s requirements for lead paint in school buildings and got really mad. And really really scared.
After that, it was evidence gathering time. A copy of the school’s asbestos plan* was requested and we learned about all the rest of the EPA requirements that weren’t being met. We panicked some more at that point. But pulled ourselves together in time to read the Fire Marshal’s re-inspection of the building (we’re waiting on the copy from the initial visit) where a number of other violations were added to the originals of “keep your fire safety system in working order at all times” and “you must keep records” (those are paraphrased). The school has 21 days to get all of that fixed or he’s shutting the building down (that’s next week sometime). By the time the School Board meeting rolled around last week we were on the offense with evidence in hand. Our fearless leader waved large amounts of paper around and pointed out about a billion ways the asbestos is a problem and asked for air quality tests. Michael spoke about trust, the fire safety and suppression system and told them Ellie was staying home from school until they proved to us it was safe. Other parents are doing the same.
Last Saturday, we got the first direct communication from the school ever-at-all-ever about any of this. We were told in an email (unless there was one today, a hard copy has not been sent home to our largely rural community, many of our families do not have internet) that the school would have “environmental tests” the first of the week with results on Wednesday. The internet thinks that asbestos results take longer than that, but whatever. The Fire Watch stuff was not addressed in this email. No one has answered my emails asking what they are testing for, what company is doing the testing, whether or not the tests are random or comprehensive. I get more information from reporters who call the house than the school in which my child is enrolled. My requests for meetings have been refused – I was finally told that the Assistant Superintendent couldn’t see me until next week and would call on Monday. The EPA will be visiting on Thursday (that’s total hearsay by the way – but I feel better believing it).
There’s just so much wrong: badly managed asbestos, unsealed lead paint, mold, the roof, the walls, the flooding, the wiring that they replaced last week for the Fire Marshal in our asbestos lined building. This kind of decrepitude didn’t just happen. It took years of neglect for the building to get into such a state of disrepair. I want to know why the school keeps claiming that they do regular inspections and regular testing when their records don’t reflect that. No one doing regular fire inspections could miss the small appliances, chained extension cords, covered windows, walls completely covered in paper floor to ceiling. I didn’t miss them and it’s not even my job. Did anybody bother to mash the test buttons on the smoke detectors when they were inspecting or are our school’s 90-year-old ceilings just too high to bother? There’s an absolute flurry of activity at the school right now, I think they are trying to tend to every work order for the past ten years all in one week. Look how busy they are when people are watching. Why didn’t they just look after it when the problems first came up? It feels like the school system decided that the building just wasn’t worth the money. Which means that they decided that the kids weren’t worth it either.
Tomorrow is Wednesday.
Tomorrow we’ll see if sending Ellie to this school was the worst thing I have ever done to her.