Top CPS official addresses Prussing LSC following carbon monoxide incident
by CYRYL JAKUBOWSKI
Chicago Public Schools chief executive officer Forrest Claypool told a visibly angry group of residents that safety at Prussing School is a priority following a carbon monoxide leak that sent more than 80 children to area hospitals last month.
Claypool said that since then two gas valves have been replaced and carbon monoxide detectors were installed. He said that a part-time engineer allegedly responsible for the leak will be fired and that the school’s aging boiler will not be replaced.
The Prussing School Local School Council held an emergency meeting on Monday, Nov. 16, in the auditorium of the school, 4650 N. Menard Ave., following a gas leak that originated in the school’s boiler room at about 9:30 a.m. Friday, Oct. 30, that sent 81 students and nine adults to area hospitals.
"What happened two weeks ago is unacceptable," Claypool said. "It is not something that we would have ever anticipated to happen, but it happened. If I were a parent here, I would be enraged too."
Claypool said that the Chicago Public Schools has installed eight battery-operated carbon monoxide detectors throughout the school, which are not required by law, and that the school district will install 5,000 detectors in buildings throughout the system by the end of the year.
Chicago Fire Department commissioner Jose Santiago said that firefighters responded to a report that a student had fainted in the school at about 9:30 a.m. on the day of the incident. Firefighters reported that elevated levels of carbon monoxide were discovered in the school, likely due to a heating system malfunction, Santiago said.
Other students and teachers complained of lightheadedness and nausea while paramedics were treating the first child and the school was evacuated, and then other students and teachers reported that they felt sick. Santiago said that those who were affected were sent to nine area hospitals and that remaining students were bused to Smyser School, 4310 N. Melvina Ave.
"Obviously far too much time elapsed between when the parents were notified where their children were and if they were okay," Claypool said. "We will make sure that that this unfortunate event doesn’t happen again and that the information would be swifter and more accurate and won’t cause the parents more anxiety."
Santiago said that the Fire Department will initiate a new temporary policy that will be used as a "patient location protocol" during emergencies. He said that responders will be required to give the city’s Office of Emergency Management and Communications the names of the students and what hospitals they were taken to.
"There is nothing worse for a parent than not knowing where their child is," Santiago said. "This new protocol for now is a short-term fix, but there is a new patient-tracking system that we will be putting into effect, which is the long-term solution. This is a scanner that we will have on the ambulance, but right now we are looking for software."
Prussing LSC chairwoman Michele Taylor said that the response by the school district following the gas leak was unacceptable. She said that calls for a new boiler system have not been answered and that the district is attempting to save money.
Taylor said that the council has been receiving reports since early 2013 that the school’s boiler was in poor condition and should be replaced.
"Mr. Claypool, the trust has been lost," Taylor said. "It makes me think what the response would have been at the private school where your child goes to, to deal with a carbon monoxide poisoning. Would parents be left in the dark or thrown a bone? I don’t think so.
Chicago Public Schools chief administrative officer Alfonso de Hoyos-Acosta said that the gas pressure regulator on the school’s boiler caused the leak. Hoyos-Acosta said the school has two boilers and that two valves have been replaced.
"If the regulator does not work properly, too much carbon monoxide will leak no matter what the age of the boiler is," Hoyos-Acosta said. "On Oct. 30 this regulator malfunctioned, and it led to too much gas into the boiler, which produced the carbon monoxide which leaked into the school."
Hoyos-Acosta said that safeguards also failed on the day of the emergency, which should have been the responsibility of the school’s part-time engineer. He said that a fire door that should have been closed, leading the gas to go out the chimney, was open, and that a fresh air door should have been open instead of closed on the day of the incident.
"Fresh air doors are supposed to be open in the tunnel to allow fresh air to mix in with heating air, and these doors were closed on the day of the incident," Hoyos-Acosta said.
"Prussing had a working carbon monoxide detector on the day of the incident," Hoyos-Acosta said. However, based on our investigation, the carbon monoxide detector was unplugged on that day, essentially disabling the entire system."
"The engineer who was responsible for the boiler and the carbon monoxide detector was on site that day, and he has been suspended without pay and will have his final contractually required hearing Wednesday, and we are seeking his termination," Hoyos-Acosta said.
"There was no failure with the boiler itself," Hoyos-Acosta said. "The problems came from the regulator, the fire door, the fresh air door and the carbon monoxide detector." He said that an interim engineer has been hired but that a full-time engineer will not be provided to the school at this time.
That led to an angry reaction from the crowd, and for the next hour and a half, the officials were criticized for not acting to ensure the safety of their children.
"The regulators have been replaced," Claypool said. "That’s what caused the malfunction. It was exacerbated by the fact that the doors that should have been closed were open and the doors that should have been open were closed, but the regulator is the primary fault."
Claypool said after the meeting that the school district will continue with the termination.
"He is up for termination because of the incidents that were described here tonight, but that’s only one part of the issue," Claypool said. "The failure of the regulator was the second part of the issue, but both had to occur for this incident to occur. We now know what we need to do to provide fail-safe in addition because there were no carbon monoxide detectors in the school itself, and that was the third failure, which we are not required by law, but will addressed."
LSC member Phil Huckleberry said that the engineer was a "hero" and was being labeled a "scapegoat" for the incident. "To a lot of people here tonight, our engineer was as a hero the day of the incident because he’s the one that went back into the building, shut down the boiler and opened all the windows," Huckleberry said.
The council wanted the school system to purchase a new boiler system, review thermostat actuators, commit to annual combustion testing and hire a full-time engineer.
Parents shouted at the officials saying that their children frequently complain of headaches and that they are afraid to go to school after seeing their teachers faint. Others questioned why all children were not tested for exposure, but were sent home or to another school.
"We have failed you and I apologize to you," Chicago Public Schools chief facilities officer Paul Osland said. "A lot of us are parents. We put you through a lot. The engineer is responsible to ensure that everything is working and maintaining and making sure that the fire door is closed and that the fresh door is opened."
Alderman John Arena (45th) said after the meeting that he would introduce an ordinance at today’s City Council meeting that would change the guidelines for school buildings in the building code.
"There is culpability in a lot of different levels in this," Arena said. "There is the issue of policy, there is the issue of notice that the boilers were working erratically, there are e-mails going back to 2013. Who knows how it became unplugged. Others use that boiler room as their break room. The problem is that policy is not sufficient to make sure that this situation doesn’t happen again.