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Asbestos Levels Spur R.I. District To Close Schools

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Asbestos contamination found in one elementary school in Warwick, R.I., prompted the testing and eventual closing late last month of every public school in the district.

When students who attend the Cedar Hill School in Warwick came home one day last month talking about men in "big white suits,'' their parents got concerned.

Asbestos was being removed during construction work on windows at the school--a procedure parents say they should have been told about.

"No one had been made aware that there had been asbestos removal being done,'' said Stephen Sullivan, the president of the Cedar Hill Parent-Teacher Association.

When the students' parents investigated further, Mr. Sullivan said, they found that the contractors had not put up proper barriers to shield students and teachers from the asbestos fibers that could be released during removal. Although the construction was done after school hours, vinyl curtains that were in place as barriers were not sealed, potentially letting asbestos into areas where classes are held.

Asbestos, a construction material frequently found in older buildings, causes cancer and can lead to lung diseases.

Superintendent Henry Tarlian said that after parents complained, the district decided to test the air quality in all of its schools. Warwick had not tested the air inside its schools since 1982 or 1983, Mr. Tarlian said.

Every test showed unacceptable levels of asbestos, Mr. Tarlian said.

Late last month, two weeks after parents confronted school officials about the construction work at Cedar Hill elementary, all 27 of the district's schools were closed because of asbestos contamination.

Parents Concerned

Parents said the school administration has mishandled the situation.

"Everything we feel that could have been done wrong has been done wrong,'' said Mr. Sullivan, who said that parents' concerns for their children's safety has not been taken seriously and that the district had failed to react quickly enough.

As of late last week, 16 of the 27 schools had reopened. Mr. Tarlian said some schools would remain closed indefinitely.

He said school administrators were working out ways to accommodate about 4,000 students whose schools are closed. As of last week, most were staying at home or going to child-care facilities.

Costs for the asbestos cleanup and testing have been estimated at as high as $1 million.

The asbestos problem is only the latest disruption to plague this beleaguered district, which has been the site of several teachers' strikes in the past few years. (See Education Week, Feb. 24, 1993.)

After this latest incident, Mr. Sullivan said, "there's just no trust'' in school administrators.

"Right now,'' he said, "the Warwick school system is not bringing a lot of smiles.''

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