Families & the Community Video

Reports of Radioactive Contamination Closed Their School. This PTA Is Demanding Answers

By Kaylee Domzalski — April 3, 2023 5:28
202303 Ashley Burnaugh  4 BS

In October 2022, Jana Elementary School in Florissant, Missouri, closed after reports of radioactive contamination in and around the school. One month later, the Hazelwood School District sent a letter to parents. The Jana students and staff would be sent to five other schools across the district in a decision that devastated the members of the parent-teacher association.

“It decimated our community,” PTA president Ashley Bernaugh said. Bernaugh filed two separate Freedom of Information Act requests in 2018 and 2021 to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in search of more information about radioactive material testing at Jana. After she received the results of those requests, she presented them to the Jana PTA and the district. “We had started that conversation. We’d asked to be part of that conversation but we were completely nixed from that conversation.”

The district’s decision to close the school and redistrict its students came after additional testing by USACE and an independent company called the Boston Chemical Data Corporation. The results of these tests are conflicting. The Boston Chemical Data Corporation cited in its report high levels of radioactive material throughout the building and playground areas. However, testing done by USACE indicates the opposite. In a statement, a spokesperson for USACE St. Louis District said, “there are no areas of radiological concern in and around the school.”

Parent and community concerns that radioactive contamination had spread to Jana Elementary stem from the school’s proximity to Coldwater Creek, which was contaminated by nuclear waste in the 1940s as a result of the production of nuclear weapons during World War II.

Beyond the issue of radioactive contamination at Jana Elementary, the school’s parents say the district didn’t include them as partners in the decisionmaking process to redistrict students, nor has it been receptive to their questions about the future of the school.

“The lack of transparency has by far surprised me with the Hazelwood School District,” PTA parent Jason Bell said. Bell is a Jana alum and all of his children have attended the school. Before the redistricting, his daughter was at Jana. “Since the move, HSD has had no conversations with anyone from Jana.”

Bell says that any questions the PTA has had about the future of the school have been met by the district with disregard. “There have been so many situations where we’re asking for involvement and we’re hit with, don’t want to comment, don’t say anything, or just nothing at all. And that part is concerning.”

The district declined to comment for this story.

In a March 2023 letter, the district said it would not be reopening Jana Elementary and that students and staff would remain at their current schools. “We are encouraged by the resilience our Hazelwood School District community has shown throughout this season of change and uncertainty,” the letter said. Bernaugh said that parents and the Jana PTA never received this letter.

For Bernaugh, the work with the Jana PTA continues, even if the school community isn’t physically together. She’s given testimony at Missouri General Assembly committee hearings about the impact of radioactive waste on the Jana community. She continues to attend the HSD Board of Education’s regular meetings to learn what’s happening in the district and to try to establish an official group to discuss Jana Elementary’s future.

“I’ve really learned that our community can have each other’s back,” Bernaugh said. “That has honestly been the proudest thing, is really learning that I did have a community and that community would support me and appreciate the work I’m doing.”

Kaylee Domzalski is a video producer for Education Week, telling meaningful stories that impact the field.

Coverage of strategies for advancing the opportunities for students most in need, including those from low-income families and communities, is supported by a grant from the Walton Family Foundation, at www.waltonk12.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.

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