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W.Va. Teacher Sues Over Classroom Air Quality

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A 5th grade teacher in West Virginia has filed a federal discrimination lawsuit against her school board for failing to transfer her out of a classroom she claims has made her gravely ill.

Barbara S. Tenney, a 29-year veteran of the Mineral County school district who suffers from severe allergies to mold, will testify at a trial set to begin later this summer in federal district court in Elkins, W.Va., that the district failed to accommodate her medical condition under the 1992 Americans With Disabilities Act.

The school board's lawyers last week denied any wrongdoing.

In her lawsuit, which legal experts say may be the first of its kind, Ms. Tenney asserts that her chronic health problems were exacerbated by her continued exposure to molds and dust trapped in a poorly ventilated classroom that had an inefficient heating and cooling system as well as a leaky roof.

Ms. Tenney claims that despite her repeated requests, district officials for several years refused to move her to a more suitable building or school, even when positions or rooms became available. Three years ago, the 51-year-old teacher was also diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma, which she attributes to her exposure to pollutants in the classroom.

Other Complaints

In the past several years, several other staff members in the 1,300-student Keyser Primary Middle School have filed complaints with the district about the air quality in the building, citing persistent scratchy and sore throats, allergies, asthma, and a range of other health problems.

Starting in 1993, the school district responded to these complaints by replacing the building's heating and cooling system. But Bill Arnold, another teacher in the school, said that the renovation was inadequate and that the pollution continued to be a problem.

Last year, Mr. Arnold, Ms. Tenney, other school staff members, and several parents of students--totaling 23 people in all--sued the 4,800-student district for medical problems they claim that they or their children suffered as a result of poor air quality in the school.

Robert Naylor, a plaintiff in the case, said that when his son David, now 17, was at the school, he would regularly complain of flu-like symptoms. Mr. Naylor, who is a chemist, said he thought the problem was chemical poisoning. "I was frustrated and angry," he said.

The plaintiffs won a $40,000 out-of-court settlement last spring, Mr. Arnold said.

In the current case, Ms. Tenney is seeking an unspecified amount of money damages for the "mental anguish" that she claims the board caused her by denying her requests for a transfer.

"They see me as a vindictive, crazy teacher who will not give up on the issue of a sick building," said Ms. Tenney, who this school year began working at a new school in the district. "I'm not claiming that I wasn't able to work. I am claiming that I was unable to breathe," she said.

District Denies Charges

District officials declined to comment last week on Ms. Tenney's specific allegations, citing the upcoming trial, scheduled for Aug. 19.

But Elizabeth Harter, a lawyer representing the Mineral County school board in the case, said she was confident that her clients would prevail. She said some staff members at the school are expected to testify at the trial that many of Ms. Tenney's claims are specious.

"We don't think that there is a case, and we can prove there was no violation of the ADA," Ms. Harter said. "There was no unlawful failure to accommodate or any retaliation," she added.

National environmental groups say that the quality of air in schools is a growing problem. More than 15,000 schools have reported unsatisfactory air-quality conditions, with more than 8 million students affected, according to federal surveys.

Construction of tighter buildings, a reduction in ventilation to help save energy, and increased use of synthetic building materials and furnishings are all reasons for worsening air quality in schools, according to Air Quality Sciences Inc., an Atlanta-based environmental consulting and testing firm.

"Because sealed allergens can build up in the building, air quality is a major topic of school leaders," said Gary Marx, a spokesman for the American Association of School Administrators. But Mr. Marx cautioned that there is still no consensus on exactly what makes a building "sick."

"We are not as a society up to speed on what might cause poor indoor air quality," Mr. Marx said.

Education law experts say Ms. Tenney's case may mark the first time that a teacher has filed a lawsuit under the ADA against a district for failing to accommodate an allergy to indoor air pollutants.

Before the ADA's enactment in 1992, schools were still required under federal anti-discrimination statutes to provide reasonable accommodation to people with disabilities, according to Gwendolyn Gregory, the deputy general counsel for the National School Boards Association.

"These laws can be a pain for school boards, but they are a necessity," Ms. Gregory said. "But any law is a potential litigation nightmare if the plaintiffs aren't acting in good faith," she said.

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