Thirteen parents and staff of Nichols Junior High filed suit Thursday to force a shutdown of the school until the source of an illness that has plagued students and employees since September can be identified and eradicated.
The suit, filed in 236th State District Court, seeks a temporary restraining order, a jury trial and over $1 million in damages for alleged current and potential future health affects.
“For months, plaintiffs have been forced to attend school and work on premises infested with dangerous levels of mold and/or unknown toxic substances including gases that have detrimentally impacted their health,” said the lawsuit, filed by attorneys engaged by the Arlington NAACP. “Defendants have refused to properly investigate the causes, warn plaintiffs or close the premises until the dangerous substances have been identified and properly mitigated.”
The lawsuit lists 13 plaintiffs and names as defendants the school board, the board president and the superintendent along with several of the district’s lab and engineering consultants and the Tarrant County Public Health Department, calling their work on the problem “negligent.”
In a statement Thursday, the school district said it stands by the work of its contractors and the county, adding that the district “continues to monitor the campus closely and will address concerns promptly and comprehensively and share information with staff and parents as it is received.”
Alisa Simmons, president of the NAACP’s Arlington chapter, announced the lawsuit Thursday morning at a press conference, citing persistent occurrences of nausea, vomiting, headaches, dizziness and fainting and calling it “an issue of environmental injustice.”
Simmons said she’s particularly concerned about Nichols because it’s a Title I school, meaning it receives extra federal funding to help serve a lower-income enrollment.
Their families, Simmons said, “don’t necessarily have the knowledge base, they don’t have the resources to fight for themselves. They’ve been attempting to get help since September with this issue. So it is incumbent on us to step in.”
Simmons and Lee Merritt, a civil rights attorney, said 522 complaints have been lodged with the district by 72 members of the school faculty and staff and parents on behalf of their children, numbers he said the school district provided. He said the ailments occur within minutes of entering the building.
The health issues have persisted since Sept. 22, when the school was briefly evacuated in response to several cases of allergylike symptoms among many in the building. The incident led to testing by two private laboratories, the county health department and the Environmental Protection Agency, several other inspections and an intense scrubbing of the school facilities over the Thanksgiving holiday.
Last month, district officials announced that a lab determined that a nonpathogenic mold found in Nichols’ heating and air-conditioning units could be causing the problems.
Armstrong Forensic Laboratory of Arlington said testing detected the so-called “dirty sock syndrome,” which it said in its final report “is not reported to be a health threat but is unpleasant and may lead to a general feeling of discomfort or malaise.”
The district said when it released the report that it had hired a mechanical engineering firm and taken other steps to begin making the report’s recommended changes to the HVAC system and maintenance routine.
“To the AISD’s credit,” Simmons said, “they have brought in some experts to attempt to determine what is causing the air-quality issue, and they feel like they have done all they can do. We disagree. The people are still getting sick.”
The lawsuit asks the court require the district to “close the premises and relocate students and staff to an alternative location within the district until the cause for their continued illness is correctly identified and fully remedied.”
The district responded in its statement: “The Board and district are confident in the results of both the internal and external testing and analysis … done thus far that indicate nothing in the building would cause a health risk and will continue to work with industry experts to correct any potential issues in the building.”
Simmons has complained that the district has not allowed an independent expert, Alisa Rich of the University of North Texas Health Science Center, access to Nichols to conduct her own tests. In a supporting document attached to the lawsuit, Rich wrote that “critical tests” were not performed and “strongly encouraged” that the building be vacated until appropriate tests can rule out exposure to dangerous gases.
Leslie Johnston, the district spokeswoman, said that the district had received no request about Rich until Thursday and that it had not yet been reviewed.
Simmons also said that teachers and staff members have been “bullied, intimidated” because of the situation.
“Some have lost their jobs, contracts ended, placed on [unpaid medical leave], just for standing up for basic human rights,” Simmons said. She declined to give details of intimidation.
Former Nichols Principal Julie Harcrow left the district during the episode for reasons the the district wouldn’t divulge, leading some to believe she was fired.
“I know she was busy advocating on behalf of the staff and students,” Merritt said, adding that Harcrow is not part of the lawsuit. “And that they felt that she was actively working to help bring light to this issue and make sure that a resolution was in place before someone became seriously hurt, and during that time she was terminated.”
Johnston said Harcrow is “out of the district, but she has not been terminated. We haven’t released anything specific to personnel matters.”
On the intimidation claim, Johnston said the district has made it “as easy as possible” to submit their concerns and “request accommodations if they need to.”
“So I have not heard any instances of bullying,” she added.