Mold suits seek millions in damages

Published 10:13 pm Monday, September 20, 2010

Suffolk Public Schools is facing new allegations of mold in the schools.

The parents of an elementary school student who formerly attended Southwestern Elementary School are requesting $7.85 million in damages after their son suffered numerous symptoms ailments that, the suit alleges, were diagnosed as a reaction to mold.

Meanwhile, a former fourth-grade teacher has renewed a lawsuit she originally filed last year alleging she suffered severe symptoms of mold allergy while employed at Booker T. Washington Elementary School.

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Both cases were filed Monday in Suffolk Circuit Court. Both suits claim that school administrators knew of the conditions, performed tests improperly and did nothing to fix the problems.

In the Southwestern case, the boy — whose identity the Suffolk News-Herald is withholding because of his age — allegedly has suffered numerous medical problems since starting kindergarten at the school.

As a result, the suit claims, he “is believed to have suffered permanent immune system and cognitive injury,” as well as educational setbacks. His frequent episodes of vomiting in class also drew teasing from classmates, and his mother nearly lost her job, because she had to pick him up from school so often, the suit claims.

Before beginning classes in 2007, the boy had no unusual medical problems, the suit claims. Then, in his first day of school at Southwestern, he began vomiting and had to be sent home.

After staying at home for 48 hours at the suggestion of school personnel, the boy vomited again in his first day back, and was kept at home for the rest of the week and weekend. Both times, the suit claims, the child was fine while at home.

Returning to school the following Monday, the child seemed well for a few days.

“Then began a period of illness for the child, including sinus infections, skin rashes, watery eyes, ear infections and repeated vomiting and coughing,” the suit claims.

The child’s mother took him to several doctors and specialists, who diagnosed him with various infections and prescribed a multitude of antibiotics, ointments and other treatments. One even tried to heal the boy’s rash with “cryosurgery,” a freezing technique that is meant to seal wounds and kill bacteria. The procedure failed.

During his year of kindergarten, according to the suit, the boy’s ailments cleared up during holiday breaks and over the summer. He was eventually moved to the back of the room after beginning to endure teasing from classmates about his frequent vomiting. His new seat enabled him to “run directly to the bathroom across the hall to vomit,” the suit says.

Despite a recommendation to send him to summer school to make up the work he’d missed, his mother did not do so after beginning to suspect that mold in the school was the cause of her son’s problems.

When he returned to school in first grade, the infections, vomiting and skin rashes returned. According to the suit, his “constant scratching left his clothing covered in blood.” The boy also stopped eating during the school day for fear of vomiting, the suit claims.

After being told by the building caretaker that mold was a problem at the school, the child’s mother demanded that tests be done on her son’s classroom. The child told his mother that workers replaced sink parts and carpet and cleaned cabinets in his classroom, and she witnessed a massive cleaning effort unfolding in the school during a visit one day.

Samples were collected shortly after the cleaning, according to the suit. The tests showed lower mold levels inside the building than outside.

Tests on the boy came back positive for allergic responses to molds, dust mites and dog saliva. Eventually, the child and his sister were transferred to Hillpoint Elementary School on March 15. However, the “plaintiff faces future long-term medical treatment,” the suit says.

Accusing the School Board and building management executives in Suffolk Public Schools of concealing facts and willfully or negligently manipulating tests, the suit seeks $7.5 million in compensatory damages and $350,000 in punitive damages.

In addition, former Booker T. Washington teacher Cristina Hood has re-filed her suit against the School Board. Like Southwestern, the suit says, BTW is prone to water damage, moisture intrusion and other problems. After beginning her job in 2007, Hood developed itchy and irritated eyes, a “welting rash” and other problems. Her physician diagnosed her with sinusitis and bronchitis, among other things.

Earlier that year, an independent industrial hygienist reported that the school had elevated levels of moisture in the floor slab.

Hood is seeking $1.5 million in damages.