March 01, 2006

Healthy Schools Heroes 2006  
Westborough (MA) parent Kathy King 
School Committee member Bruce Tretter

Every year to mark the anniversary of the March 18, 1937 Texas School Explosion, I salute Indoor Air Quality Heroes whose inspirational leadership protects children from school hazards and unhealthy school conditions. As many safety champions know, it often takes enormous persistence and courage to take leadership for safety in schools and overcome indifference to a wide range of health and safety problems.

My 2006 Healthy Schools Heroes are Westborough (MA) School Committee member Bruce Tretter and parent Kathy King. Tretter and King have transformed the Westborough Public Schools into a unique model of district-wide responsibility, responsiveness and commitment to health and safety.

Tretter and King make safety and health a high priority, something that was overlooked when the burgeoning oil-rich East Texas boomtown built its new state-of-the-art school.

Today, 69 years since the Texas School Explosion, its story should be part of our national legacy. Let's make March 18 a national day dedicated to bringing the "Lessons of the 1937 Texas School Explosion" to our nation's schools and celebrating the heroes whose leadership saves children's lives.


Bruce Tretter calls Westborough's successful process, "Beyond Tools for Schools" because of its highly detailed IAQ Program Manual and the high level of support from school staff. The IAQ Program Manual is available online at no cost at


The small Massachusetts community has come a long way.

Kathy King is the mother of Kellianne who suffered headaches, sinus infections, chest pains and seizures that were linked to a variety of indoor air quality problems and chemicals in her school. Once King realized the school was the source of Kellianne's symptoms, she spoke up early and persistently for the children of Westborough, confronting years of official denial and resistance.

King and another parent, Nancy Meany, a nurse, presented the school committee with over 500 signatures they had collected from parents and other community members, including senior citizens, to show support for adopting the US EPA IAQ Tools for Schools program.

Bruce Tretter was a relative newcomer to Westborough and had never heard of the term "IAQ" when the Hastings Elementary Schools was suddenly closed because of wide-spread upper respiratory symptoms among students and staff.

Later, when he heard Kathy King testify about her daughter's severe illness related to the Hasting's poor indoor air quality, he remembers thinking she was crazy. Finally, Tretter realized that she was making a lot of sense and they became allies. When Bruce saw that the school administration was slow to make changes, he got more involved.

Tretter served on the school council for two years (2000 and 2001) and then was elected to the Westborough School Committee in 2001. He pledged to improve school indoor air quality and specifically, to work on a district-wide monitoring program for the budget as well as for facilities. Tretter became and still is chair of the district's IAQ committee that has evolved into a comprehensive Facilities Committee.


"Bruce has been a very important part of our village," says King. "Bruce saw the urgent need for change in the way Westborough managed its buildings and the way the administration communicated. He recognized that the countless health complaints of staff and students were valid and needed to be addressed properly."

"After finding out the facts about our schools' extensive IAQ problems and the stonewalling for over a decade, Bruce ran for school committee. Bruce took the IAQ issue to the max. He was not satisfied to stop when the minimum requirements of an IAQ team were met. He continuously looked for ways to make the teams more effective."

"The school children and staff now have the benefit of many watchful people in the village. They have site-based teams and a central team watching, inspecting, reporting, and fixing IAQ problems before they become health issues. These teams work very well with the administration, another very important partner in the village."

King's continued input on Westborough's Facility Committee and her ability to work with the media to promote Westborough's turnaround will inspire many others to speak up for changes in school design, operations and maintenance on behalf of children.


In the beginning Bruce Tretter and Kathy King looked far and wide for a school that had an authentic functioning model of the US EPA IAQ Tools for Schools program, but neither US EPA, the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, nor any of the healthy schools advocacy groups could provide one.

So, as part of Westborough's nascent Indoor Air Quality team, King and Tretter assembled a district-wide committee, including representatives from the state teachers' union. They set out to create a plan appropriate for all six of their district's schools and also readily adaptable by any school district in the nation.

The IAQ team sought input from the school staff and administration. The Massachusetts Teacher Association's training emphasized that the program would benefit everyone in all of the school buildings. In 2001-2002, the MTA also contributed their lawyer, Sarah Gibson, who helped make the program as comprehensive as it is today.

After a year of drafting and editing, the committee had a district IAQ manual complete with detailed building checklists, schedules and timelines for completing the checklists, building inspections, detailed responsibilities for follow-up and protocols for follow-up reports.

Tretter describes the program's first year as "slow going" because they didn't have a template or model to learn form. However, the process improved, especially with the interest and cooperation of the superintendent and the new school nurse.


Today, everyone in the Westborough School community shares a high sense of responsibility for making the IAQ plan work. The average classroom checklist completion rate across the district has been over 90% over the past three years. Rooms without a completed checklist are inspected by the individual school Health and Safety teams who conduct comprehensive inspections twice a year.


Eventually the Westborough School System's bad press changed to good press, especially after Westborough was recognized by the US EPA in 2003 for creating an IAQ program that featured district-wide awareness and a proactive approach.
In October 2005, Kathy and Kellianne King and the Westborough Schools exemplary turnaround were featured on ABC's Good Morning America, in the Boston Globe, and in other news stories around the country.

In the Good Morning America report: "Girl's Illness Traced to 'Toxic' School," Kellianne says, "I feel very proud to have a mom that would do that for her kid instead of just giving up...and not just for me but for other kids."


A significant feature of Westborough's process is continuous improvement. The Facility Committee works to improve the checklist procedure. At first, staff members were asked to fill out separate autumn and spring classroom checklists. 

Later, staff members were reissued their completed autumn checklist and asked to note any changes on a condensed spring checklist. This new procedure reinforces awareness of room conditions noted previously. It also allows for a more accurate comparison season to season and contributes to the sustained high rate of checklist completion.

Each school's checklists are used to create a report about facility conditions and maintenance at each school. Following a review of the checklists, the district facility committee does extensive walk-throughs. Instead of meeting only in the central administration building, the committee holds district meetings in each of the school buildings on a rotating basis. This allows the committee to see first hand the problems cited in the report. They also see how repairs are going, for example, the remediation of a water infiltration/plumbing problem in the recently constructed Mill Pond School.

There are also many examples of the school systems heightened responsiveness. Teachers fill out maintenance requests regularly. When diesel fumes from idling equipment in an attached garage space were getting into the school, the principal stopped it immediately. In the new K-3 school, the architect designed the room for the copy machine to vent fumes into the school hall. Now the school is going to relocate the machine to a more properly ventilated location.


Tretter identifies three keys to IAQ success: persistence, awareness and communication.'

Persistence was required to bring all parties on board and to implement the plan and to keep improving it. Now everyone understands that continuous vigilance is required to ensure the system responds appropriately to practical operational needs as they arise.

Awareness: At first some staff members expressed con-erns that the IAQ plan was creating a program only to address problems at one school. However, staff learned that IAQ problems can arise in any building and that proper prevention and mitigation of problems relies on properly trained and prepared staff.

The program has proven its value in responding to indoor air quality problems at other schools, especially those undergoing construction and renovation projects. Although unforeseen at the outset, the awareness of IAQ solutions, especially the importance of building maintenance, has been especially appreciated as the district has budgetary constraints.

Communication: Problems are shared, not hushed up. From the beginning, the program depended on comprehensive, straightforward and open communication among all members of the school community.

Everyone knows that the future success of the program depends on maintaining good communication among the district facilities committee, each school's health and safety team and building staff, the school department and school committee. 

Communication maintains the benefits of the IAQ program even as committee members and school personnel change.

Implementation of Westborough's program has increased IAQ awareness so it is now a cornerstone of school and community culture. Westborough is a true model of success. Bruce Tretter is eager and willing to mentor other school districts.  


It could be you!

Bring the Lessons of the 1937 Texas School Explosion to your school. In response to the growing number of accidents such as mercury spills and lab injuries, many states as well as the US EPA Schools Chemical Cleanout Campaign have created resources and programs to help schools conduct chemical clean-outs and to provide training to staff to implement the necessary chemical management programs. They can be allies and resources to anyone who takes leadership for school safety.

For other references and resources see What You Can Do online at Find information and suggestions for school programs and events to improve school safety and security, plus links to national and state resources and model programs.

Let me know how it goes.
Ellie Goldberg,