Students Return to Class After Asbestos Cleared from Schools

Student Walking Down Hallway

Hundreds of Orange County school kids can set their alarm clocks a little later this year.

Beginning Sept. 9, the first day back to school, most will ride the bus to their own local school rather than making a long trek to another district according to a report published in The Los Angeles Times.

Last October, Ocean View School District officials shut down three elementary schools, displacing 1,600 Huntington Beach students after concerns of asbestos exposure at the schools.

Transporting children by bus to eight other schools in separate districts that year cost the Ocean View School Board $50,000 a week.

One School Remains Closed

“The abatement projects are completed at Hope, Oak View and Lake [elementary schools]. We are very excited about reopening the modernized Hope View campus,” school superintendent Carol Hanson told Asbestos.com.

Hope View Elementary will open its doors after completion of a $1.35 million contract to finish modernizing the building and removing the asbestos. School officials extended invitations to parents to tour the building prior to the first day of school.

Although contractors also completed asbestos removal at the remaining two schools, modernization is incomplete.

Work continues at Oak View Elementary where 10 portable classrooms are now temporarily accommodating incoming students while work crews finish renovations. Last week, the school board approved a $1.84 million budget to finish upgrades on the building by January 2016.

The third school, Lake View Elementary, remains closed throughout the 2015-16 school year. Those students will start classes at nearby Westmont Elementary in the same district while the school board reviews improvements for the campus.

“Providing safe, well maintained classrooms and school campuses, ensuring students have healthy and productive learning environments, are essential to helping students achieve academic success and enabling them to enjoy their school experience,” Hanson said.

School Board Trustee Was Whistleblower on Asbestos Issues

It’s been almost a year since Ocean View School Board trustee John Briscoe filed a complaint with the California Department of Industrial Relations, a state agency that monitors employee safety.

Briscoe asserted that asbestos removal continued after school started and while staff and students were in the building. According to the Orange County Register, Briscoe’s patience ended when he saw broken and missing ceiling tiles.

In his complaint, he wrote about the decades of fine asbestos-laden dust in the attic and ceiling tiles.

“Dust remains confined away from the staff and faculty if the ceiling tiles are undisturbed,” Briscoe said. “I believe there to be at least one or more classrooms with ceiling tiles removed for repairs, inspections or any number of reasons.”

Parents criticized school officials for neglecting to inform them that asbestos removal was underway. They only learned about the problem after Briscoe filed his formal complaint.

According to the Orange County Register, Ocean View School Board trustee and parent, Gina Clayton-Tarvin, said school employees informed her of an absence of signs warning about asbestos removal.

At a Sept. 16 school board meeting, Clayton-Tarvin said management principal at Westgroup Designs, Tim Holcomb, said his group continued the asbestos abatement without the board’s knowledge.

Briscoe said unsafe conditions and poor communication threatened “children and working adults alike.”

Dangers of Asbestos in Schools

Thousands of schools built to accommodate the baby boom generation after WWII dot the nation. Many of these school buildings contain asbestos. Now more than 50 years old or more, these buildings are showing their age.

Until the 1970s, asbestos was used for decades as fireproofing material and can be found in many older buildings. As long as it’s left undisturbed, there’s no danger. However, once it becomes airborne, it puts anyone who inhales it at risk.

According to The Washington Post, as early as 1984, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimated that 15 million students and 1.4 million teachers and other school staff could face exposure to airborne asbestos. This came after the EPA sampled 2,600 public and private schools.

In 1986, Congress mandated that schools across the nation routinely inspect their buildings for asbestos, abate it properly and inform the public of their actions.

Asbestos is definitively linked to mesothelioma, a deadly cancer diagnosed in nearly 3,000 people annually in the U.S.

When inhaled, the asbestos fibers in the fine dust lodges in the lining of the lungs. The latency period for mesothelioma is anywhere from 20-50 years.

School Officials Claim No Harm Done

After Briscoe filed his complaint against the district, all the school buildings in the district underwent asbestos testing. Results revealed only trace amounts in the three shuttered elementary schools.

The Los Angeles Times report shows those levels were far below federal standards for hazardous asbestos exposure.

Despite the low-risk levels of asbestos, the school district ordered a complete deep cleaning of the entire schools.

“We can say with absolute certainty that every child attending our schools is studying in the cleanest and safest classroom possible,” Superintendent Gustavo Balderas said.

School District in Financial Woes

Construction costs and asbestos abatement that exceeded projections pushed the Ocean View School District in the red. An article in The Washington Post shows the district had to borrow $15 million to cover the unexpected costs.

“You went from a stable district to a district facing insolvency,” said Wendy Benkert, Associate Superintendent of Business Services for the Orange County Department of Education, in a presentation made to board trustees in December and reported in the Orange County Register.

Senators Ask Governors for Information on Handling Asbestos

Earlier this year, Sens. Ed Markey, D-Mass., and Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., mailed letters to all 50 governors asking for the following information regarding schools in their states:

  • The scope of asbestos hazards
  • Awareness and monitoring of hazards
  • Abatement status
  • Asbestos accreditation, training and licensure
  • Notification to parents, teachers and staff
  • Reporting to the EPA

A spokeswoman for Markey told The Washington Post that while every governor responded, the procedures to carry out the mandates varied from state to state.

“Everyone has asbestos, but they don’t want to deal with it,” Clayton-Tarvin said. “To abate it is absolutely, astronomically expensive.”

  1. Clark, A. (2015, August 23). Two Orange County schools closed over asbestos concerns will reopen. Retrieved from: http://www.latimes.com/local/lanow/la-me-ln-orange-county-schools-20150823-story.html
  2. Fry, H. (2014, October 22). Asbestos tests clear other schools in Ocean View District. Retrieved from: http://www.latimes.com/local/california/la-me-1023-schools-asbestos-20141023-story.html
  3. Graham, J. (2014, October 2). School board member says Huntington Beach campus poses asbestos danger. Retrieved from: http://www.ocregister.com/articles/asbestos-637161-district-view.html
  4. Layton, L. (2015, August 5). Authorities worry that many U.S. schools could have dangerous asbestos. Retrieved from: http://www.washingtonpost.com/local/education/authorities-worry-that-many-us-schools-could-have-dangerous-asbestos/2015/08/05/5af96180-3b8e-11e5-9c2d-ed991d848c48_story.html
  5. Office of U.S. Senator Edward J. Markey. (2015, March 31). Markey, Boxer Query 50 State Governors on Asbestos in Schools. Retrieved from: http://www.markey.senate.gov/news/press-releases/markey-boxer-query-50-state-governors-on-asbestos-in-schools

Beth Swantek has been writing professionally for 30 years. She is a former news reporter and anchor for a CBS affiliate in Michigan and often reported breaking medical and political news. Currently, she teaches media writing and video production at Lawrence Technological University in the Detroit area, as well as working as a freelance writer and producer.

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