Schools seek lawsuit help

Published 10:30 pm Friday, January 13, 2012

The Suffolk Public School system has put the city on notice that it may need money to pay out some lawsuits soon.

The School Board recently wrote to Mayor Linda T. Johnson, explaining two lawsuits pending against the school system and its personnel — one from a former teacher and one from a student’s family — regarding alleged mold in the schools. Neither of the actions is covered by liability insurance, Chairman Michael Debranski wrote.

“Should there be a judgment rendered against the School Board, the School Board will have to request an allocation from the city because funds are not currently available in the School Board’s operating budget for payment of a court judgment,” Debranski wrote.

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He also requested participation by the city attorney in the matters, but city officials flatly declined.

The first of the lawsuits began in June 2009, when former Booker T. Washington Elementary School teacher Christina Hood claimed the School Board knew about mold and humidity issues inside the building and did nothing to fix the problems.

She said she began to feel ill within days of beginning work at the school in 2007, and the conditions led to skin ailments, sinus infections, congestion problems, itchy and irritated eyes and other problems.

She initially tried to sue the city but dropped the charges when the city provided documentation that the School Board owns the property.

The lawsuit against the School Board was dismissed by a federal court judge in 2010 but was appealed to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals. She is requesting $1.5 million in damages.

Another lawsuit filed by the mother of a former Southwestern Elementary School student is seeking $7.5 million in damages.

Deborah Simpson sued the School Board, claiming that her son suffered from frequent vomiting, sinus infections, skin rashes, watery eyes, ear infections and other ailments while he attended kindergarten and part of first grade at the school.

Tests on the boy came back positive for allergic reactions to mold. Eventually, the child and his sister were transferred to Hillpoint Elementary School. However, the child “faces future long-term medical treatment” and “suffered permanent immune system and cognitive injury,” according to the lawsuit.

After being told by the building caretaker that mold was a problem at the school, Simpson demanded tests be done on her son’s classroom. Samples were collected shortly after a massive cleaning effort, according to the suit. The tests showed lower mold levels inside the building than outside.

Though Debranski wrote in his letter to the mayor that the School Board is confident it will prevail in both cases, he still requested the involvement of the city attorney.

City Manager Selena Cuffee-Glenn cited state law and the state constitution proving that the School Board owns the schools and is responsible for their maintenance. It also is responsible for “budgeting for managing its risk exposure,” she said.

“It would not be proper or permissible for the city to participate in the litigation,” she said.

A short letter from Mayor Johnson merely thanked Debranski for his letter and said she agreed with the city manager’s recommendation.