Bonnie Tuttle watched her adolescent son go from healthy to seriously ill during the school year. Now she and the parents of nine other students are suing the public school district over mold contamination they say made their children sick.
The lawsuit, filed Monday in Superior Court in Woodbury, accuses the Washington Township Board of Education of mishandling a chronic mold problem at two middle schools in the Gloucester County community.
The suit demands that the district educate the plaintiffs' children elsewhere, until it can rid their schools of mold. It also wants to make the district pay for medical monitoring for affected students and seeks a new evaluation of the schools' air quality. It also demands the school district allow any student who becomes ill after classes resume to transfer.
Students and teachers at Orchard Valley and Chestnut Ridge middle schools have complained of headaches, rashes, fatigue, difficulty breathing, and other symptoms, the lawsuit says, with toxic conditions in the schools reaching "epic proportions" last school year.
Tuttle says her son, Jordan, showed symptoms on the third day of sixth grade last fall and that by March a doctor certified him too sick to attend school. By that point, he had missed 33 days, she said.
"We have had a year of living hell," Tuttle said. "We got to a point where my husband and I were pulling him out of bed in the morning, and he was crying, 'please don't send me there."'
The mold problem surfaced shortly after the schools were built in 1988. The district has spent $600,000 on air-quality improvements at the two schools since 1999, and is scheduled to spend another $1 million on remediation work going on this summer.
That's not all. Taxpayers will be asked in December to approve a $5 million referendum to replace the ventilation systems at both schools. If the measure passes, the state would pay the other half of the cost, and work would begin next summer.
According to the lawsuit, that's not enough.
Louis Giansante, the Moorestown lawyer representing the parents and children, said Tuesday the district's remediation effort has been slipshod. A report by an engineer hired by the plaintiffs said the mold source has yet to be definitively identified and recommended a new evaluation before more money is spent.
Superintendent Thomas Flemming said state Health Department inspectors walked through Orchard Valley on Tuesday and were impressed with the work being done. He said there was never any question that the schools would reopen in September.
Flemming said most of schools' mold problem was carried out with the carpeting in 1999. Dehumidifiers and humidity monitors were installed in each classroom in the spring.
"What we've done is controlled the humidly and thoroughly cleaned the building. That should assure that we will not have a mold problem," he said.
Flemming said the schools' heating and cooling systems should be replaced because they are nearing the end of their life, not because they are contaminated with mold.
The Washington Township Education Association did not return a call Tuesday. In a letter to Flemming last December, union President William Fallon outlined an action plan to deal with "the ongoing problem of mold in our schools," including increased air-quality monitoring and reporting of symptoms, and consultation with a lawyer.
Pure Air Control Services