EDITOR'S NOTE: This story has been updated to include a statement from the Orleans Parish School Board that they were not aware of the March 2017 report from LDEQ, and were not in control of the school or its building at that time.
New Orleans charter school Lafayette Academy has been forced to close its campus after contamination from an asbestos removal job. School district officials have said children weren’t on campus during the work. But state records show this isn’t the first time asbestos removal has been mishandled at Lafayette Academy.
Asbestos contamination is dangerous. Inhaling airborne asbestos fibers can cause cancer decades after exposure. So when Lafayette Academy parent Tuere Jones found out about the contamination last week, she was pretty freaked out.
"It’s just thought of it being there is an issue for me," she said.
School officials say no students were exposed. School was closed for the year when construction workers removing asbestos contaminated the building and school yard in May 2018. The Orleans Parish School Board and the Recovery School District sent out letters saying no students were on campus during that asbestos removal job -- or during a previous removal job. That’s right, there were two: one in 2018, and one in 2017.
Officials said school was closed for the 2017 job, too.
"During summer of 2017, third floor renovation and abatement work commenced," letters from the school systems said. "This work did not start until after school dismissed in May of 2017, and was properly completed before students returned in August 2017."
But parents are skeptical. Jones says she’s seen construction workers at the building during school hours for the past two years. Another parent, Rebecca Simon, called the Recovery School District's assurances into question at July’s parish school board meeting.
"I don’t trust anything you guys have told us," Simon told school officials. "For you to get on the news and say that the children were not in school while construction was taking place - that’s a total lie."
Turns out, parents are right. Documents obtained by WWNO show work on asbestos abatement started as early as March of 2017, while kids were in school. And not only were kids in the building, some of them came into contact with the asbestos containment areas. That's despite claims from the Recovery School District that "all environmental laws and regulations regarding hazardous materials were followed," when children occupied the school.
In a state report, an inspector visiting the site said the containment areas were left unsecured, that students were roaming the halls nearby and that she witnessed one student poke his head into the asbestos containment area.
After seeing the documentation, Jones said she’s not surprised.
"It confirms what we already, you know, thought and knew," she said.
The inspector noted other concerns. The on-site supervisor was found to have falsified his asbestos removal certification. There were boot prints between containment areas, indicating workers could have been tracking asbestos in the halls. And asbestos stored in an empty classroom was not properly wrapped or labeled.
Dwight Bradshaw is an inspector and asbestos expert with the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality (LDEQ). He says it's not often an inspector finds this many problems with a site.
"Generally we might find one or two areas of concern on an inspection, but there were quite a few on this one...especially for a school," he said.
The Recovery School District, which hired the contractor, says air quality tests showed the air in the school was safe on the day of the 2017 inspection, so they didn’t stop the work or evacuate the building. But they did make some changes.
"When that report was issued we took immediate action," Recovery School District CEO Kunjan Narechania said. "And when the DEQ monitor returned four days later...they cited that we had made the appropriate changes."
One of those changes was to shift workers’ hours so that they only did asbestos removal after school dismissal. State documents say that the scheduling changes happened on March 28 - six days after the initial inspection.
Meanwhile, Mickey Landry, the CEO of the Choice Foundation, which runs the school, says while he was aware some changes had to be made by the contractor, no one from the Recovery School District told him or his staff about the specific issues the inspector noted in her report.
Jones says, that doesn’t let Landry off the hook. And that parents should have been told .
"These are their kids. Theses are our investments. Anything that involves these children, they should be made aware of," she said.
Officials at the Recovery School District maintain that despite the concerns in the inspector’s report, the school air was safe for students in 2017. Tests show the air met safety standards in March on the day of the test, and before students returned in August.
The Orleans Parish School Board says they were not aware of the LDEQ report until Monday, July 23.
"The Recovery School District was, and still is, responsible for the management and oversight of the building's renovation. The school board was not involved in the renovation process and therefore was not aware of the LDEQ's report," the school board said in a statement.
Support for WWNO's education reporting comes from Entergy Corporation.