March 01, 2008

2008 Healthy Schools Heroes  
* Matthew Langenfeld, US EPA, Region 8, School Chemical Cleanout Coordinator 

* Bruce Hayes, Wyoming Department of Education

* Brian Spangler & Bonnie Rouse, Montana Department of Environmental Quality

* Allyson Kelley, Rocky Mountain College American Indian Affairs, Project Director 

Every year, to mark the anniversary of the March 18, 1937 Texas School Explosion, Healthy Kids salutes Healthy Schools Heroes who demonstrate extraordinary responsibility and inspirational leadership to protect children and teachers from chemical hazards in schools.

The Healthy Schools Hero Award is an annual opportunity to remember the worst school disaster in American history as a case study and cautionary tale. It can inspire us to break the silence about school hazards and to prioritize the values and technical skills we need to live safely with 21st century chemicals and technology. It prompts us to take action to save lives in today's schools where explosives and other hazardous materials in labs, closets and storerooms are routinely ignored.

The Healthy Schools Hero Award 2008 goes to a TEAM of five people who demonstrate how state and federal agencies can take leadership for school safety.  They are heroes for their collective sense of responsibility, inspirational leadership, and exemplary persistence and courage that has protected thousands of children from laboratory chemicals and other hazards and unhealthy school conditions." wrote Randy Brown, of the US EPA, Region 8 (8P-TA), Tribal Assistance Program, Denver, CO.

Brown's nomination detailed the extraordinary amounts and types of explosives and other chemical hazards the team cleared out of tribal and rural schools.

Brown also wrote,

I have observed the collective efforts of a collaborative team of professionals dedicated to making tribal and rural schools safer from chemical and explosive hazards for school children, teachers, and administrators throughout Montana, Wyoming, South Dakota, and Colorado.

Together this team has accomplished tasks that would have been impossible for an individual to accomplish. This work has been ongoing for the last few years...

This team has used a very practical process and cost saving measures to reduce risk to chemical exposure. The team has worked tirelessly to improve chemical safety school conditions for children...

Members of the team are working with the US EPA Office of Solid Waste to produce a video of school chemical cleanout activities at Wyoming Indian School in Ethete, Wyoming on the Wind River Indian Reservation. The video will be used to demonstrate how industry can help and how any activity by school administrators can be helpful to make schools safer for school children.

Voices of History

In 1937, in the small oil-rich town of New London, Texas, a series of decisions to cut costs in the new junior-senior high school's heating system led to a gas leak in the unvented basement that led to an explosion that destroyed the modern, steel-framed school building. At least 319 people died, mostly children.

Surprisingly, no one was held responsible because the Court of Inquiry concluded that "school officials were just average individuals, ignorant or indifferent to the need for precautionary measures, where they cannot, in their lack of knowledge visualize a danger or a hazard." (Court of Inquiry, 1937)

The disaster resulted in a law requiring that a warning odor be added to natural gas, thus saving millions of lives all over the world. Texas created the Texas Engineering Practice Act to set professional standards for public buildings to "safeguard life, health, and property and protect the public welfare."

However, the Court's other important safety recommendations have yet to be implemented in most 21st century schools. The Court recommended that schools need: 1) technically trained administrators for modern school systems, 2) rigid inspections and more widespread public education about avoiding and managing hazards, and 3) a comprehensive, rational safety code.

Today, there is an extensive website of primary source materials and a museum dedicated to remembering the "lost generation," to documenting the story of their beloved community, the explosion and its aftermath, and to preserving its legacy for future generations. London Museum and Tea Room, New London, Texas 75682. (903) 895-4602 or (903) 561-7256

Other Inspiring 2008 Hero Nominees
 Nominated by Dennis McElroy, PhD, Asst. Professor of Education, Graceland University School of Education
 Nominated by Erik A Talley, Chair, Division of Chemical Health and Safety, American Chemical Society, New York
Nominated by Rick Reibstein of the Massachusetts Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs, Office of Technical Assistance and Technology