We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.
In 2001, D.C. Public Schools (DCPS) officials cleaned house at Terrell Junior High. Due to its low test scores and a reputation for violence, DCPS slated the school on 1st Street NW for “transformation.” That fall, a new principal and fresh teaching talent replaced much of the staff from the year before.
One bit of housecleaning, however, went undone. In mid-October, the principal changed some room assignments, transferring French teacher Nicole Sivolella from her first-floor classroom to Room 215, a former science lab on the second floor. The new space, Sivolella says, “looked like a tornado hit it.”
Many of the floor tiles were loose, broken, or missing, according to Sivolella and several of her former students. Loose paper and orange cones were scattered on the floor, they say. The previous occupant of the room, a science teacher, had left behind his books and teaching materials, which were covered in a thick layer of dust.
“When they moved her up there, there was a lot to be cleaned,” says former Terrell Assistant Principal Cheryl Warley, now principal of Wilson Elementary.
The science teacher, Lucius Stephenson, declined to comment. However, Stephenson had been evacuated from the room because of concerns about asbestos back in April, according to a letter sent to school officials by his attorney. Workers had sealed off Room 215, and several other classrooms at Terrell, with plastic sheeting, and posted warning signs on the doors. According to Warley, they had also circled parts of the floor in orange spray paint.
According to DCPS records, however, they never did an asbestos abatement. While some rooms at Terrell were subject to asbestos cleanup in May and September of 2001, Room 215 was not included. Sivolella and Stephenson retained an attorney in the matter, and Sivolella is seeking to file a grievance through the teachers’ union, complaining of a hazardous working environment.
The room did contain asbestos; Terrell was built in 1954, when it was common for building materials such as pipes, floor tiles, and floor adhesives to contain the fire retardant. According to the National Safety Council, exposure to asbestos can cause cancer when it’s disturbedthat is, when it’s crumbled or broken. That’s when the tiny asbestos filaments diffuse into the air and become the stuff of multi-million-dollar jury awards.
Sivolella says she asked the new principal, Francis Nicol, about the asbestos in the reopened classroom. “I knew it [had been] closed,” says Sivolella, “but he said, ‘It’s fine, there’s no more asbestos. It’s done. It’s taken care of.’”
Either way, the cluttered room was hardly ready for class. Sivolella, though, was game. This was only her second year teachingher first in a D.C. public school. “My attitude was like, ‘OK, be positiveit will be my room,’” she says. “What do you do? You think you will clean it up and it will be your home.”
Janitors chuckled, Sivolella says, when she asked them to help clean the roomtelling her she could make a lot of money in lawsuits if she stayed in the room and got sick from asbestos exposure. But she pushed ahead. “I brought in an old pair of gloves,” she says, “I brought in some brooms. The janitors gave me one and said, ‘Good luck.’ Then I went to the principal and he said, ‘Do the best you can. Use the kids for 15 minutes a day.’” The principal denies issuing such an order.
So the French classes pitched in. “It was, like, real dirty and cluttered and real junky,” recalls Denisha Matheny, one of Sivolella’s students from the fall of 2001. She says half the floor tiles were missing and remembers tiles stacked in the back of the room.
The cleanup took several weeks. Sivolella and the students picked up the tiles and carried them to trash bins the janitors had left by the door. Students recall that once, as one of them gathered a bunch of papers, a dead rat fell out. One student, who asked not to be named, says she often retreated to the hallway during the cleanup because of her asthma, but after the rat incident, she quit altogether. “That was enough for me,” she says. “After that, I would just sit in a chair and just sit there.”
DCPS officials say that any cleanup that thorough would normally require workers in protective suits. “We don’t want people picking up loose tiles,” says Facilities Director Sarah Woodhead. “We want them calling [us] so we can take care of it.”
Nicol says that the students had nothing to worry about. “Room 215…prior to my arrival here was rumored to be asbestos-laden, or something to do with asbestos,” he says. “It was my understanding that they closed it for an investigation. Their investigation concluded with no asbestos.”
An e-mail sent by a DCPS facilities official to Nicol in May 2002 assured him that a safety worker had inspected the room in September 2001 and “at the time she didn’t see any reason why the room could not be occupied.” An inspection in April 2002 reached similar conclusions.
The principal disputes Sivolella’s description of the mess in the room. “She might have dusted the tabletops or something, but it was not a filthy room,” he says, adding that he was unaware that students had done any cleaning.
Sivolella continued to teach French in Room 215 until May of that year, when she says Nicol rebuked her for having a messy classroom. She says the principal ordered her to cover missing tiles with a rug and to hang up posters that had fallen down; the posters wouldn’t stay up, she says, because the walls were too dusty. Nicol denies telling the teacher to cover the floor and says he only asked her to put up more French instructional posters.
Nicol’s anger at the state of the room, Sivolella says, led her to believe that the room was contaminated. She called her union representative, the union complained to school officials, and Nicol locked up Room 215. Sivolella’s classes bounced from room to room for the rest of the school year. The principal also e-mailed a school facilities manager requesting a report on “missing tiles” and the “scheduled date of completion of the abatement work.” Plastic once again enveloped Room 215, and an asbestos warning sign was taped to the door.
The results of a test conducted in June 2002, and provided by Nicol to the Washington City Paper, indicated no presence of airborne asbestos. “There was zero,” says Nicol. Sivolella’s story is rooted in “animosity, some desire to be vengeful,” he says. Sivolella was transferred to Ballou Senior High in Southeast later that summer.
Also that summer, Room 215 was ripped apart. DCPS asbestos-abatement records show that in July 2002, workers removed 1,210 floor tiles and 1,210 adhesive squares.
DCPS officials say that there was asbestos in those tiles and that they had planned an eventual abatement. After Sivolella’s May complaint, says Deputy Facilities Director Greg Williams, the agency re-inspected the room, found that the tiles had deteriorated, and closed the room early.
Although parents remember their kids complaining two years ago about their “trashed-out” classroom, they have yet to be informed about any asbestos hazard. “I’m just hearing about this now,” says Wardella Denise Howell, whose daughter was in Sivolella’s French class. “I just thought she was helping them clean.” CP