MALIBU (CBSLA.com) — Beginning Wednesday, students and staff will be temporarily relocated from a building at Malibu High School that some believe is making them sick.
Addressing a packed auditorium Tuesday, Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District Superintendent Sandra Lyon said some classes will be moved to other rooms on campus or to neighboring Juan Cabrillo Elementary School while an investigation into potential health risks is conducted at the school.
Some parents left the emergency meeting frustrated by the lack of answers to their many questions.
"I felt she was ill-equipped to answer the parents' questions and that the parents had more information than she did," said Barbara Goushow, who attended the meeting.
The superintendent said she recorded all of the parent's questions and would try to answer them and incorporate their concerns into the investigation.
Several parents sent a letter Monday demanding the relocation of classes and criticizing the lack of transparency from the school after media reports Sunday revealed that one-third of Malibu High School teachers had complained of health problems, including cancer and other serious illnesses.
The letter, sent jointly from the school's Parent Teacher Association, the Boys and Girls Club, the Shark Club fundraising group and others, also asked that a community liaison be hired to address what they characterized as a crisis.
"By placing our kids and your staff in temporary buildings, the district can ensure safety, avoid liability, and prevent children from not going to school due to health concerns," the letter said.
Gary Peterson, whose son is a student at Malibu High, said he noticed something was wrong last Friday when he was helping his son put away his band equipment after a football game.
"There's something seriously wrong with this room. Something's very, very wrong, this room is sick. It smelled odd, it's humid, there's something going on here," said Peterson.
Several days later, Peterson learned the music and arts building where the band room is located was at the center of the health scare.
Teachers allege their health was compromised when the district hired contractors to cart 1,017 cubic yards of dirt contaminated by carcinogenic PCBs, lead and pesticides, away from the campus.
Teacher Katy Lapajne wrote a letter (PDF) to the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District last week claiming three teachers have been diagnosed with stage one thyroid cancer within the last six months and that three others were recently treated for thyroid problems.
The letter, signed by Lapajne along with 19 other teachers, also cites examples that include one teacher who claimed to suffer from and receive medical treatment for skin rashes over the last four years, with her symptoms only allegedly clearing when she stopped working over summer break. Another teacher reportedly received medical treatment for what Lapajne claims was "unexplainable hair loss."
According to construction plans published in 2010, tainted soil tested at a "total hazard index" of 2, which was significantly above the target index of 1. After the 1,017 cubic yards of tainted dirt was to be hauled out, the target hazard index was predicted to drop to .1.
The top three feet of soil next to the older buildings was hauled away in a hazmat-style operation during a summer vacation period in 2011. It contained levels of lead, pesticides, PCBs and volatile organic compounds above California safety standards, according to an assessment conducted before construction began.
Superintendent Lyon apologized Tuesday for a lack of communication with parents.
A memo was sent out late Friday notifying staff the district had hired an environmental consulting group to test for contaminants beginning Sept. 20. The reports of cancers and presence of the testers were not disclosed to the community until Sunday night, hours after media outlets began reporting the teachers' complaints.
"There was a lack of communication and a fear created in the community, and for that we apologize," she said. "We did have a plan to communicate with you, but that did not happen fast enough, and for that I apologize."
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