Anthrax Scare Too Close to Home

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Florida Principal Geoff McKee told students they could no longer sort mail.
——Richard Graulich for Education Week

Spanish River High School seems an unlikely place for worries about deadly microbes. Surrounded by swaying palm trees and blessed with a balmy climate, the school has a tranquil atmosphere that does not suggest potential catastrophe.

But when anthrax spores from contaminated mail were found in the headquarters of American Media Inc., just a few miles away, Geoff McKee, the principal of the 3,200-student school here, took immediate action.

The first thing he did was make sure that the students working in the office no longer sorted the mail. Then, after handling the mail himself for about a week, he asked Michael Mignano, a retired federal government lawyer who does odd jobs for the school office, to take over the task.

Unlike an increasing number of school mailroom workers in the weeks since mail-borne anthrax bacteria seized the nation's attention, Mr. Mignano shuns the use of latex gloves and dust masks to protect himself from possible contamination.

'On the Front Lines'

"I don't think it exudes much confidence in the staff if their mail handler looks like an astronaut from NASA," he said last week.

Every day, usually in the early afternoon, a mail carrier brings about four boxes of letters and packages through Spanish River High's courtyard, reception area, and front office into a mailroom where Mr. Mignano then sorts through the parcels and envelopes.

If he can't get to the sorting right away, he stores the mail in a separate room, which is locked, to make sure that no one thumbs through the deliveries before he does.

On Wednesday afternoon of last week, Mr. Mignano was sitting at a table in the spacious mailroom, talking about the perceived dangers that now come with the mail.

Students used to check and sort the mail that arrived at Spanish River High School in Boca Raton, Fla. But since anthrax struck a nearby media company, the school has shifted those duties to Michael Mignano, a retired government lawyer who does odd jobs at the school.
——Richard Graulich for Education Week

To emphasize how seriously he takes his new duties, he pointed to a brown briefcase that was placed on a nearby counter.

Inside the briefcase were newspaper and magazine articles that show what mail handlers should look for when sorting envelopes and packages. Mr. Mignano has also collected directives on mail handling from the U.S. Postal Service, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the local police department here in Boca Raton, a popular beach and resort community.

Mr. Mignano said he looks for everything from stray wires sticking out of a package, to foreign postage, misshapen parcels, and envelopes addressed to the wrong person.

The only suspicious piece of mail he has come across so far was a letter from England addressed to the "headmaster." He wrote a note to the principal saying, "Do not open unless you know this person." Mr. McKee promptly threw the envelope in the trash.

Mr. Mignano, an energetic 51-year-old who used to be a U.S. Army captain in the judge advocate general's office and recently retired from the Social Security Administration, laughs when he thinks about his new responsibilities.

"When I left my old job, I wanted a nice unskilled-labor job where I wouldn't be in the path of danger," he said. "Now, I'm finding myself on the front lines."

Golf-Cart Patrols

When it was discovered in late September that a photo editor at the nearby American Media newspaper-publishing operation had contracted anthrax, some parents and staff members at the school were scared, Principal McKee said.

"Initially, there was a lot of unfocused fear," he said, adding that one parent called to ask if the school was planning to conduct tests of soil samples from the campus.

At that point, county, state, and federal health officials did not know where the anthrax spores had spread. And some people were concerned that the spores could have been practically anywhere, including the school, said Mr. McKee. Even so, he did not order anyone to take soil samples.

About a week later, the school learned that the spores had come in the mail, which made it easier for Mr. McKee to focus his attention on how to change the school's mail-handling procedures.

Yet even before the anthrax case here, and subsequent incidents of contamination in Washington and New York, security had been tightened all over campus in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Mr. McKee said.

"We now more carefully supervise delivery trucks," he said.

School administrators have taken other steps, too.

For instance, in addition to the two police officers who work at the school supervising safety, two other school employees drive golf carts around the campus checking on delivery trucks and visitors.

During one of their recent rounds on the golf carts, the employees turned away a pizza-delivery man because his car was not marked, and they had no way of verifying that he was there to deliver food, Mr. McKee said.

He pointed out that school officials would not have done that before Sept. 11.

'It Was Scary'

The timing of the anthrax threats was particularly bad for Spanish River High because the school was still trying to understand the implications of the terrorist attacks in the Northeast.

And students and staff members felt a particular link to the crisis because some of the suspected terrorists had apparently lived close by.

It was the news about that proximity that especially shook Daniella Ferrera, a 17-year-old senior at Spanish River High.

"It was scary," she said. "When we found out that they were in South Florida, we felt like, 'That is really bad. We don't like that.'"

Ms. Ferrera spends one period a day doing clerical work in the school's office. She used to sort the mail once a week, before the new mail-handling procedures were put in place.

Then, when the news broke that somebody from South Florida had contracted anthrax, Ms. Ferrera said, "we all went crazy for about a week."

But teachers at the school tried to inform students of the facts about anthrax, a rare disease that can be deadly but is not contagious.

In her Advanced Placement biology class, for instance, her teacher spent a whole period discussing how anthrax spores are spread, where they originate, and the treatments and vaccinations for anthrax disease. That new knowledge reassured Ms. Ferrera.

Mr. Mignano also was not worried. "I'm not concerned personally, because hopefully it can be cured with antibiotics," he said.

Ironically, Spanish River High School had already experienced an incident that was initially perceived as a potential bioterrorism threat.

Last year, a school official found a white box, about the size of a shirt box, under a teacher's car parked on school property. There was tape all around the box and phrases written on it, such as "do not touch," "dangerous", and "biochemical hazard," Mr. McKee said.

After two bomb squads and four fire engines were sent in to investigate, the box turned out to be a science experiment in which students were collecting particles of dust to study pollution.

'What Else Can Happen?'

Palm Beach County, Fla., which includes Boca Raton, has had to cope with more serious situations at schools as well.

Last year, the school community mourned the loss of a middle school teacher, who was shot and killed in a school building by a troubled student.

"We've had tragedies that we've had to deal with," said Arthur Johnson, the superintendent of the 156,000-student Palm Beach County district. "Now it's like, 'What else can happen?' "

In response to the alarm over anthrax, Mr. Johnson said, he made sure all of his principals knew the correct procedures for handling potentially dangerous mail.

Moreover, he sent word to students and parents that hoaxes would not be tolerated. "We made sure that people understood the penalties" for hoaxes that imitate weapons of mass destruction, he said, noting that punishments could include up to 15 years in prison.

Still, Mr. Johnson knows that some parents are worried. He recently received a call from one parent who wanted him to post National Guard soldiers at each school.

And he said there are those who would like the district to lock down all of its schools, and not let anyone on or off campus.

He said administrators here are now walking a fine line to keep their schools safe while not taking away freedom.

"We stop short of doing things that would change our way of life as we know it," the superintendent said. "And I hope that events in the future do not cause us to have to consider those things seriously."

Vol. 21, Issue 11, Pages 1, 16-17

Published in Print: November 14, 2001, as Anthrax Scare Too Close to Home
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