The lawsuit filed by a former environmental occupational health and safety officer alleging the city’s school district mishandled complaints of air quality problems at a number of city schools has prompted the teachers union to urge its members to visit their doctors for medical checkups.
“We’ve told our members, whether you work at the ten buildings cited, or whether you work somewhere else, if you’ve been suffering from any type of respiratory or any type of ailment you believe is attributed to your work environment, we simply want you to go have a checkup with your doctor,” said John McEntee, president of the Paterson Education Association, the teachers union, on Wednesday morning.
Teachers and staff members at the Colt Street school building that houses Yes and Harp Academies complained about air quality problems in February of this year, a month after the two schools were moved to the leased former office building. The union initiated a complaint stating staff members were feeling ill inside the building. The complaint stated the building was “dusty, there was a mildew odor permeating areas of the building” there was a “general lack of air supply,” and staff were unable to open windows.
Some at the building complained about headaches and eye irritations, reads the lawsuit. The lawsuit filed by Brenda Zemo also alleges the district’s facilities director Steve Morlino directed unlicensed and untrained carpenters to handle asbestos and mold removal. She alleges untrained and unlicensed maintenance staff were directed to remove mold at six schools — School 25, School 24, School 10, School 4, Boris Kroll, and School 30.
McEntee said he was “alarmed” at the allegations that were mentioned in a lawsuit filed in the New Jersey Superior Court in October. Construction crews were doing overnight renovation work at the Colt Street building after it opened leaving behind dust and debris.
“Zemo disclosed to Morlino that the building custodial staff had neither the time nor the equipment to properly clean the debris and dust before students and staff arrived to the building each morning,” reads the lawsuit. Zemo further objected to the fact that preventative maintenance schedules and mechanical ventilation of air contaminants were not being adhered by the construction vendors and thus derivatively, by the district.”
Zemo continued to voice the need to address air quality problems at the school buildings. She visited the Colt Street location three times and completed a report that was sent to school principals as was standard practice. She was reprimanded by Morlino for giving principals “ammunition” to sue the district. She was eventually terminated for constantly objecting to the improper handling of air quality complaints, asbestos, and mold removal, according to her complaint.
Subsequent to the report, the teachers union filed a complaint with the Public Employees Occupational Safety and Health (PEOSH). McEntee said he did not immediately have a status on that complaint.
The district also exposed employees to asbestos, alleges Zemo. A door leaking asbestos at Eastside High School was removed by carpenters unaware the door was laden with asbestos. The door was carried through the hallway of Eastside High School, she alleges.
Zemo had a contractor take air sample from the hallway which came back “below any level requiring action.”
McEntee also urged parents to take their children, who are suffering from constant upper respiratory infections, sinus infections, and wheezing of the lungs, to their physicians to get a medical checkup done.
The union has received dozens of emails after the allegations emerged in news stories. The union president said he contacted state-appointed district superintendent Donnie Evans about the issues raised in the complaint. A member of the superintendent’s cabinet responded and a meeting has been scheduled for next week to discuss the issues.