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Albion teachers press district for environmental assessment of elementary school

Photos by Tom Rivers: Albion elementary teacher Joyce Monacelli speaks during Monday’s Board of Education meeting and asks the district to be more open and cooperative with teachers as they seek answers whether staff have a high rate of breast cancer.

By Tom Rivers, Editor Posted 14 May 2019 at 9:56 am

Teachers concerned because many staff have been diagnosed with breast cancer

ALBION – The Albion Teachers Association told the Board of Education the district is moving too slowly in addressing teachers’ concerns whether there is a high incident of breast cancer in the elementary school and if the environment in the school is a culprit with the cancer.

“We’ve been stonewalled,” Chris Keller, ATA president, told the board during its meeting on Monday. “We’re not going away until this building is inspected by an impartial third party.”

The Teachers Association said the district needs to have an independent environmental assessment of the school to ensure that it is safe for staff and students.

That assessment is scheduled to happen on Sept. 23 by Nellie Brown, director of the Workplace Health and Safety Program for Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations. She was at a Jan. 31 meeting at Albion, and spoke for more than an hour, outlining numerous chemicals that can be potential causes of breast cancer or endocrine disrupters.

She met with district custodial and maintenance staff on April 12 for a “Tools for Schools” training and will be back on June 10 for a similar training that will be available for teachers and other staff. That training includes some air sampling but isn’t an extensive building investigation.

Keller, the ATA president, said teachers were upset they weren’t notified or welcome to be part of the April 12 training. Michael Bonnewell, the district superintendent, said Brown wants to do the training with small groups of up to six people at a time. The district first wanted to focus on custodial and maintenance staff for the training.

James Bowers, an epidemiologist who studies diseases for the state Department of Health, will likely be back in the fall to study if the elementary school shows a high rate of breast cancer. If the study shows that, Bowers said the report wouldn’t determine a “smoking gun” that would be the cause of the cancer.

Bonnewell was faulted by two board members, Elissa Nesbitt and Kathy Harling, for not at least letting the ATA know that Brown would be at the district on April 12 for the training.

Bonnewell apologized and said he would strive for better communication going forward. He said he has been pushing for the building investigation by Nellie Brown.

The district superintendent also has brought in James Bowers, an epidemiologist who studies diseases for the state Department of Health. He attended Monday’s board meeting and said he expects to start a study in the fall, looking at the history of people who have worked in the elementary school who were diagnosed with breast cancer or other serious health issues.

If that report shows a high incidence of breast cancer, Bowers cautioned the study wouldn’t be able to pinpoint a specific cause. He has completed many of these studies at other schools and communities.

“We can’t ever find a smoking gun,” he said.

His focus will be determining if there is a higher, lower or average rate of breast cancer at the elementary school compared to the rate in the community’s population.

Angie Wolfe, a kindergarten teacher who was diagnosed with breast cancer last year, said the preliminary data gathered by teachers shows there is a high incidence. The ATA has counted 25 teachers and staff who have been diagnosed with breast cancer. That includes cafeteria workers, clerical staff and teacher aides, as well as teachers.

The 25 cases is up from the 22 that were presented to the Board in January. Wolfe said more people have stepped forward.

The diagnosed cases include nine in the past five years and 16 in the past 10 years.

Wolfe said she is “disheartened and very discouraged” at the pace in finding answers about why there seems to be a high incidence of breast cancer.

“In presenting the information to the district office I was hoping compassion would be shown and action would be taken,” she told the board.

Margy Brown, the board president, said the district is committing to the environmental study and ensuring a safe school for students and staff. She said the board and administration want a good working relationship with the ATA as they pursue answers.

Keller wants to see the timeframe speeded up.

“We don’t have several years to wait to identify if we have a serious problem in the elementary school,” Keller told the board.

He would like to see the building assessment done before Sept. 23, the date scheduled with Nellie Brown.

Nesbitt and Harling, two of the board members, agreed the process “is taking a long time.”

“I am for doing whatever it takes to make this right,” Nesbitt said. “We owe it to our staff and our people.”

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