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Kids Sick But Test Must Go On

Question: If kids at your school had "nose and throat irritations and difficulty in breathing, some pupils have experienced headaches, nausea, stomachaches and rashes, and two fifth-graders have suffered seizures" wouldn't you want the state TAKS tests to stop and the place be evacuated until authorities found out what's up?

Health experts are taking air samples from Lanier Middle School in Freeport after pupils experienced allergy-like symptoms and other health problems.

The samples were taken from the fifth-grade wing of the school at 522 N. Avenue B.

In addition to experiencing nose and throat irritations and difficulty in breathing, some pupils have experienced headaches, nausea, stomachaches and rashes, and two fifth-graders have suffered seizures, parents said.

By this weekend, officials with the Texas Department of Health will know the test results and likely will make recommendations to school officials, said Brian Rutherford, spokesman for the agency's regional office in Houston.

Two health department officials walked through the fifth-grade wing on April 29 but were not able to draw any conclusion from that initial visual inspection because of limited access to classrooms where pupils were taking the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills, he said. The officials returned this week to conduct air-quality tests.

Mold was not found in an interior wall torn out of a classroom in the wing two weeks ago, said Rudy Okruhlik, superintendent of the Brazosport Independent School District. That room had drawn the most complaints about odors and allergy-like symptoms.

"There was no visible sign of mold or mildew in the wall demolished," he said. "But we are examining every possibility and hoping the inspection by the health department will help pinpoint what it is for us to make necessary adjustments."

The district conducted some remediation in the room but will await health officials' recommendations before proceeding with the work, Okruhlik said.

Some parents are angry at how the district has handled the situation with the fifth-grade wing.

"The school administration is trying to keep this under wraps," said Kelly Adkins of Freeport, who contacted the state health department after her daughter was twice rushed to a hospital by ambulance after suffering seizures at school. "Other parents whose kids are sick like mine don't even know what's going on. We were never informed of anything by the school district, and teachers were afraid to raise their concerns because they were afraid to lose their jobs."

Okruhlik said the district first investigated concerns with the fifth-grade wing last year. Air samples were taken from the building, which dates to 1940s, but didn't show evidence of mold. At that time, mold discovered in the school's sixth-grade wing was being cleaned. The sixth-grade wing, which is the school's main building and was built in 1995, also was completely renovated.

Adkins, 32, said her daughter, who is in the fifth grade and had not experienced seizures before school started last fall, can't play with friends as she once did.

"She has headaches at school every day and is on seizure alert. She can't climb a ladder, can't be on roller skates, can't swim unless someone is with her, can't take a bath unless her bathroom door is unlocked. She cries because she has to use an asthma inhaler every day, which is causing her hair to fall out," Adkins said. "You don't know what's it like to go to bed and wake up constantly worrying what's going to happen to her today and wondering if we're going to have an ambulance today. I'm scared."

Parents said they asked the district to transfer fifth-graders to another facility, such as a temporary trailer, a request they said officials didn't consider.

"They have known that wing had problems and should have already gotten those children and teachers out of it, instead of letting them stay sick all year round," Adkins said.

Parents did not make that request formally with the district, Okruhlik said. Brazosport has no plans to bring in trailers before getting information from the health officials' investigation, he said.

"If the need is really there, sure we'll do what we need to do," Okruhlik said.

Demolition of the fifth-grade wing is planned as part of an approved $128.5 million bond package, but work won't begin until 2005.

Janie Montellano, 39, said her fifth-grade daughter, Holly, started suffering headaches and nausea in October and then suffered a seizure. Holly Montellano complained that school officials accused her of pretending to be sick before she suffered the seizure.

"I wasn't crazy. I wanted to cry, but I held back," she said. "I felt dizzy, my chest hurt, my stomach hurt and I felt numb everywhere before I fell to the ground. I was scared and felt like I was going to die."

— Chunhua Zen Zheng
staff writer
Houston Chronicle
Illnesses lead to air testing at Freeport school




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