Breaking the Mold

What the heck is making those kids and teachers sick at T.H. Rogers?

T. H. Rogers is one of the most sought-after schools in the Houston Independent School District. The pre-K through eighth-grade facility houses three groups of kids from all over the district. It is an enlightened matchup of children in the Vanguard program, the deaf and those with multiple handicaps.

Parents jump through all kinds of hoops to get their kids into Rogers. This is a good school for teachers as well. Vanguard students are there because they want to be and tend to be the sort of non-trouble-making best and brightest that educators dream about.

But some teachers and parents, as much as they love the school, say they and their children do better when they are away from it. They point to the number of times their children have been sick, the colds, allergic attacks and respiratory illnesses that sidelined students with unwanted sick days or sent them to school at less than their best.

Mold keeps coming back at T.H. Rogers, despite cleanups.
Mold keeps coming back at T.H. Rogers, despite cleanups.

HISD spokesman Terry Abbott says there is no major illness problem; students had a 97-percent daily attendance rate this year. Some parents beg to differ, not with the numbers so much as the effects. Some say their kids only get well when they go away from Rogers.

These parents think they know what the problem is. They think mold has gotten out of hand, sending out the same kind of toxins that shut down schools in Austin and other parts of the country, that closed the Denton County courthouse in North Texas the other day, and that now has Fort Bend Independent School District officials promising studies after finding a potentially dangerous fungus at First Colony Middle School.

HISD is saying we cleaned up the mold last summer and hey, this is life in Houston, Texas. Some of these parents and teachers are saying no, this is life in T.H. Rogers land and we want it changed. Because some of these parents know there can be more to mold than just some unsightly greenish black stuff with an unsettling odor. Sometimes it can really mess up people. Sometimes it can have irreparable effects on their lives. Sometimes it can even kill them.

Principal Linda Andersson appointed a committee earlier this year to study the school's environment. She declined to talk with the Press, but in an April newsletter to parents she stated that the panel met with an environmental biologist and scheduled an air quality test. "I will keep you informed of the results," she wrote.

So now everyone would know what's going on.

Ah, but this is where we all sidestep into a briar patch of the bizarre. There is a report -- unreleased to the general public -- but HISD declares it an "unauthorized one." So whatever it says doesn't count. The author of the April 27 report, one Paula Vance of the Houston firm Microbiology Specialists, Inc., initially said she was willing to discuss the report with the Press if HISD released it to us (which it did). Now she says only the client can answer questions about what the report means. Except that the client as listed in the report is Principal Andersson, who HISD says isn't a client.

Confronted with this latest bit of information, Vance giggles and says, well yes, "That's true. That was unauthorized." So then she doesn't have a client, right? Well, not necessarily, it's just she didn't have authorization. That happens sometimes and then the authorization comes later, she says. Without it, she doesn't get paid. "I was working on the premise that I did have a client." Well, so who is she not naming? "This gets into a confidentiality situation," Vance responds. Check and mate.

A layman's review of the report shows several molds have invaded T.H. Rogers -- among them the notorious stachybotrys. It can cause headaches, an assortment of respiratory illnesses including asthma attacks and has been linked to deaths in young children. But whether there's enough of it to mean danger or no danger at all, is unclear. Which leaves parents, students and teachers no better informed than when this drama began.

Gee, no urgency here. It's just a bunch of teachers and kids, some of them "medically fragile" who have to deal with this. Hey and the school year's almost over, right? So they've got the whole summer to recover. While whatever's there waits for them to return.

In February, 48 Hours broadcast a show entitled "Invisible Killers." In the first horrific segment, we met the Ballards: Melinda, her husband Ron and their son Reece, age 4. While living just outside Austin, they had been overcome by toxins generated by the mold in their dream house. After moving into the 22-room mansion set on 72 acres of horse country, each Ballard began coughing up blood. Ron lost his job after his accompanying memory loss made work as a financial adviser impossible. As one of his former co-workers glumly reported on camera: "It [mold] took an extremely brilliant young man and turned him into a nincompoop." While Melinda was able to escape any lasting effects, her son was not as fortunate. A specialist in New York diagnosed that the boy's lungs had already been scarred and he had suffered some of the same neurological damage as his father.
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