Friday, April 22, 2016

SICK BUILDINGS: THE GREAT NORTH MIDDLE SCHOOL EVACUATION OF 1994

Note: Articles from The Daily Herald documenting the events described are hyperlinked throughout the text of this blog post. As they are PDF'd directly from microfilm scans, they may not be legible on-screen. If you find this is the case, try printing them as you should find improved legibility in hard copy. 

The most compelling reason to vote for taxes funding the replacement of the North Middle School buildings is one you haven't heard of from the district or their official supporting campaign. It has nothing to do with technology, maintenance, or security, but instead stems from some mysterious but very serious health concerns that manifested early in the life of the building, came to a head in the mid-1990s, and linger to our present day.

The original North Junior High school, as seen from McDougall Avenue.
(historiceverett.org)

The original North Junior High was built in 1925, underwent renovation in 1971 (opening with a new and short-lived name of George Washington Carver Middle School), and eventually was replaced outright and reincarnated as North Middle School. The school opened in the fall of 1981 at a price tag of $5 million and with an anticipated enrollment of about 1000 students. Judging from the Everett Herald's pre-opening coverage, the building was an architectural showpiece and the pride of the district.



The christening bottle broken against the red brick cornerstone must have contained R.L. Stevenson's Bottle Imp instead of vintage Dom Perignon, because within a couple of years students and staff alike began complaining of mysterious headaches, nausea, and other ailments as a result of being inside the building. School officials repeatedly tested the air quality and HVAC systems over the years, even replacing some ventilation units, without much luck. By April of 1994, this string of illnesses reached critical mass and an announcement was made that the school would be closing temporarily to perform more aggressive testing to find out just what was making people sick.

It was uncertain just how long the school was going to be closed while they tested for up to 75,000 possible contaminants, or where the students would go to attend class if they were unable to return. While families wondered where their kids would be displaced to, there was also much speculation in the community as to just what might be the source of the contamination, including possible residual pollutants from The Great Everett Tire Fire of 1984 (an intriguing but unlikely explanation, since North students and staff started developing symptoms a year prior to the black rubber inferno).



The Everett Tire Fire of 1984 was one of the ten worst in the world.

While the school remained closed and testing went on, then-EEA president and future state legislator Mike Sells revealed that at least three staff members from North had left precisely because they believed the buildings were making them sick. One of the staff members estimated that the number was closer to thirty. Staff weren't the only ones to leave; parents who had withdrawn their children from North for health reasons came forward and told their experiences to the Herald.

Four days into the testing it became clear that things were going nowhere fast and North students weren't going to be able to return to the middle school anytime soon. The decision was made to have the North students attend class at Everett High School. Scheduling, of course, presented a bit of a conflict, so an arrangement was made that the North students would show up for class in the mid-afternoon shortly after the high school students had left for the day, and would attend on an abbreviated schedule with school ending in the early evening. It was a creative solution, for sure, and likely the only truly practical and convenient way of coping with an otherwise tricky problem. Some students even enjoyed the novelty of the later hours in the adjusted school day.

A few days later, preliminary results came back inconclusive. North Middle School students would be continuing classes at EHS for at least three more weeks, possibly through the end of the school year. Students began classes at EHS with mixed reactions, some liking the later hours and others hating them. In addition to everything else, the abbreviated schedule required an overall shuffling of the school day, with the result that many students had new teachers for the same classes. In many ways, it was like the first day of school – at a new school – all over again.

A week later, the Herald reported that according to EEA records, North staff were complaining of symptoms even earlier, with 45 staff members reporting symptoms in a survey conducted in December, 1992. Why the EEA did not come forward, publicly, with this information right away is unclear. In the meantime, a few parents came forward with descriptions of similar symptoms presented by their children at nearby Garfield Elementary.

Once the spark had been ignited, district patrons continued to chime in with their experiences. Similar problems, it seems, had been experienced at the Everett Alternative High School, with one staff member writing in to describe how staff there, too, had gotten sick – including one requiring hospitalization – and that the district administration had “sidestepped” them when they voiced their concerns.

But it was not all complaining. One parent wrote in to the Herald with an encomium for how well she thought the district, along with families, were making the best out of a difficult situation.

By late May, district officials sent a letter to families informing them that North students would finish out the school year at EHS. The students seemed to be adjusting well to the new schedule, and officials felt it best not to disrupt them again. Nothing of significance had so far been found.

Nothing of significance would be found, either, after North re-opened for the 1994-95 school year. In the meantime, carpets had been replaced, the HVAC system overhauled, and cleaning supplies changed. In a wrap-up article to the months-long ordeal, the Seattle Times reported that the number of sick individuals prompting the evacuation was five staff members and seventy-five students. It also reported that similar air quality issues had been happening at Heatherwood Middle School in the south end, and in aspects symptoms were worse there. Whether any attention was given to the complaints at the Alternative High School is unknown.

Some students staff are still quietly reporting headaches, nausea, and other symptoms, particularly in Building 2. In early 2015 the district hired a consulting lab to test for mold and a few other irritants, again with inconclusive results.

If the buildings are replaced via a successful capital bond effort, all these matters are expected to become moot. That is, if the problem is actually with the building and not connected to the site. If there is some kind of contamination on the site, however, the brand new building will bring with it the same old problems. We should hope that the district thoroughly investigates this possibility and explores contingencies in the case that the site turns out to be the source of the problem.