March 12, 2010

Set aside a special day each year as a memorial....

...let us suggest the legislature of Texas set aside a special day each year to be observed as a memorial day on which tribute will be paid to the children and teachers who died in this catastrophe...and to make laws of safety... Our daddies and mothers, as well as the teachers, want to know that when we leave our homes in the morning to go to school, that we will come out safe when our lessons are over.
At the 2005 reunion of the New London School Explosion families, Carolyn Jones Frei reads the March 25, 1937 speech she gave as fifth grader Carolyn Jones to the Texas Legislature. She is standing in a corner of the London Museum being recorded by filmmaker Reva Goldberg. At her side is the machine that adds mercaptan, the warning smell to natural gas.
Complete Transcript

Mr. President, members of the house of representatives, and friends of school children, I’m here today as a representative of the London school and as a survivor of the school explosion that took the lives of nearly 500 pupils, teachers, and parents.

Last Thursday afternoon while my colleague and I were studying spelling for the interscholastic meet in which we were going to represent our school the next day, our teacher Mrs. Sory saw some pictures fall from the wall and several vases crash from the desk.

In an instant she had jerked open two nearby windows and said get out of here. We were clinging to her when we heard the first awful rumble that in a few seconds caused the room to collapse.

Mrs. Sory helped us out of the window and in another few seconds we were separated by the dark cloud of dust that blinded us.

When it got so I could see again I ran home as fast as I could. My teacher and friend were not killed, but I did not see them again.

My sister Helen Jones, an honor student and member of the high school champion debate team, was not so fortunate. She and my uncle, Paul Grier, a senior who planned to study medicine, were both taken from us in this awful explosion that killed so many of the future generation of East Texas.

When the announcement was made a few hours earlier by our principle that school would be dismissed for the county meet, the usual joy and excitement of a holiday prevailed. Little did we realize that we soon would be searching in the ruins of our beautiful school building for the bodies of our sisters and brothers and teachers.

First, as a representative of these school friends and teachers of mine, both living and dead, I am here today to express our appreciation for all that you and our governor have done for the relief of the suffering people of this community.

Second, let us suggest the legislature of Texas set aside a special day each year to be observed as a memorial day on which tribute will be paid to the children and teachers who died in this catastrophe.

We want to thank you for the memorial fund to which many of you have already contributed and which people all over the world are sending donations. We believe if those students and teachers who died would speak they would want a living memorial instead of a stately building.

By all means, we should have an appropriate but simple structure on which will appear the names of each pupil, teacher, and parent who died. With the remaining portion of money, our teachers suggest an endowment fund, to be used for the future education for the surviving children so that each might be assured of a college education if they so desired.

In conclusion, let me urge you, our lawmaking body, to make laws of safety, so it will not be possible for another explosion of this type to occur in the history of Texas schools.

Our daddies and mothers, as well as the teachers, want to know that when we leave our homes in the morning to go to school, that we will come out safe when our lessons are over.

Out of this explosion, we have learned of a new hazard that hovers about some of our school buildings. If this hazard can be forever blotted out of existence then we will not have completely lost our loved ones in vain.

We need say nothing more on the point of safety legislation because we as children of London school know that our faith in our government will not be betrayed. We will have safe school buildings in the future.

All of us who were spared will try to show our appreciation by striving to become the finest of citizens to carry on the work of this wonderful land of yours and mine.

This is our plea, thank you.

... As a result of the New London tragedy, the 45th Legislature enacted House Bill 1017 which amended Article 6053, Texas Revised Civil Statutes, 1925, giving the Railroad Commission the authority to adopt rules and regulations pertaining to the odorization of natural gas or liquefied petroleum gases. On July 27, 1937, Gas Utilities Docket 122 was adopted and the Commission began enforcement of odorization requirements for natural gas. 

March 11, 2010

COLD MORNING, 1937 and Memory Book


The night of the disaster, no one slept.
Sirens ripped the darkness with doom.
Dogs howled back. After the bodies
were found, we tried sleep,
stared at the ceiling, fixed by memories
we could never escape or soon describe.

Exhaustion loosened our grip on consciousness,
we slipped into a dark pool, lay floating
face down below the surface, until
the gray pool merged with gray dawn.

We rose, forcing our leaden feet
to the terrible task: caskets, the unctuous
minister, the exhausted emergency worker.

In a garage beside the mortuary,
makeshift tables held the remnants of lives,
shrouded in bloody sheets.

Rituals were omitted.  No neighbors stood
in doorways bearing plates of cake.
Those not bereaved avoided our eyes,
terrible as gorgons.

Yesterday's March morning warmed
to the trills of mockingbirds. Gulf breezes
rushing inland tossed new bluebonnets.
Today is a cottonmouth under a cold stone.

-- Carolyn Jones Frei


One muggy afternoon the students sat
for their last school pictures.  In the air
from the photographer's fan
the children's hair blows to the left.

When I open the Memory Book,
dead schoolmates assume weight,
dimension.  The faculty comes first
in death, knowing, dignified,
The school secretary wears a secret
smile, planning the wedding
that never came. Seniors parade
in caps and gowns, diplomas
never signed.  On the yellowing
pages for primary school, wisps
of hair slip from clips and ribbons,
bangs hang unevenly.

The names are regional: Iva Jo,
Sybil, Glendell, Lataine. Boys in
their fathers ties never inherited
their names. From freckled faces
clear eyes gaze, searching fate
in the camera's lens, composing
historic ovals memorized
by grieving parents.

Billy wears his skullcap, chin up,
feisty as always. Tall Ollie is shy.
The twins are separate on the page,
though never in life or death. The best
dressed girl wears her best dress.

They know the final mystery.
But we who survive memorialize
the pain, the loss of trust, another
slaughter of the innocents.

-- Carolyn Jones Frei

March 07, 2010

Vignette # 1 –Toxic Inhalation Hazard & Corrosive Chlorine Gas – Risk Factor 4
The lecture bottle (small gas cylinder) in the left photo was found in a high school corrosive storage cabinet.  The cylinder was unlabeled and none of the current teachers knew what it contained.  The corrosive vapors from a leaking bottle of sulfuric acid had seriously damaged the valve.  The teacher said she had considered cracking the valve and bleeding out a little gas to see if she could determine what it was by the smell but had thought better of it.  Fortunately, a former chemistry teacher was substitute teaching that day in a nearby room. When asked about the cylinder, he said, “Oh yeah, I know what that is.  It’s just chlorine.”

The lecture bottles on the right were from another school.  The red cylinder has the word “Chlorine” hand written on it in grease pencil.  None of the teachers knew these cylinders were stored in a box in a hidden shelf in the chemistry storage room.  In both cases, no one had the faintest idea of how to dispose of them, nor were they aware of the need to get them off their property as soon as possible.

In both cases, once I explained that there was sufficient pure chlorine gas in a full lecture bottle to be immediately life threatening to 100,000 people if distributed evenly, the schools were immediately in agreement that those gas cylinders needed to be removed and properly disposed as fast as possible.

What lessons can we pull from these two stories of unneeded toxic gases?
  • With no specific information on the hazards posed by chemicals, there is little motivation to dispose of them as long as they aren’t interfering in the daily routine.
  • When people gain perspective on the risks their chemicals pose to themselves and the students at their school, they are more willing to dispose of unneeded hazardous compounds.
  • When the photograph of the chlorine cylinder on the left was shown to the manager of our hazardous waste inspection program, our agency immediately determined these old school chemicals were a priority issue for us to tackle.  This led to a shift in funding to allow our program to help offset school cleanouts and the assignment of some of our field inspectors to tackle this problem.
Vignette #2: Toxic & Oxidizing Lead Nitrate – Risk Factor 3

A middle school in Washington State had over 500 containers of lab chemicals, including 13 pounds of lead nitrate, in their science stockroom.  Lead nitrate is a poisonous oxidizer that is often used in dilute solutions and reacted with other chemicals to create colorful precipitates.

I asked the teacher if he used the lead nitrate.  

“Oh yeah, don’t get rid of that stuff, I need it.” 

“How much do you use?,” I asked.  

“Well, let’s see, I use one gram each quarter in the double displacement lab, and another gram a year in the flame test.”  

“OK,” I said, “then that’s about five grams a year, right?”  

“Yeah, that sounds right.”  

“Well then, with 454 grams in a pound, that means it’ll take you 90 years to use up one pound.  And with 13 pounds in stock, you’ve got about a 1,200 year supply on hand.  How long are you planning on teaching?”  

He laughed and agreed that he could probably get rid of some.  By the end of the discussion, he kept the newest container and set aside the other 12 pounds for disposal as hazardous waste.  

And, most importantly, he was then willing to dispose of another 150 pounds of hazardous chemicals that were on his shelves without feeling threatened that I was there to get rid of his needed chemicals.

What lessons can we pull from this typical story of too many bottles in storage?
  • They may need the chemical, but it doesn’t mean they need all they have.
  • A skilled inspector, asking probing questions in a non threatening way, can help a science teacher look at their chemicals in a new way.
  • When people gain perspective on the risks their chemicals pose to themselves and the students at their school, they are more willing to dispose of unneeded hazardous compounds.
  • The lab experiments that use this chemical are typically only taught in high-school-level chemistry classes.
Vignette #3: Corrosive Hydrofluoric Acid – Risk Factor 4

While dissolving minerals in a geology process laboratory, a technician spilled less than half a pint of  hydrofluoric acid (HF) onto his lap, splashing both thighs. The only protective equipment worn were chemical-resistant gloves.
He received chemical burns to nine percent of his body despite washing his legs with water from a hose at 1.5 gallons per minute. His contaminated clothing was not removed during the flushing process. Following flushing, the technician immersed himself in a chlorinated swimming pool for 40 minutes before an ambulance arrived. He became unconscious soon after arriving at a nearby hospital and his condition continued to deteriorate despite their best efforts.  His right leg was amputated seven days after the exposure and he died eight days later.

Investigators said he should have been wearing full length PVC coveralls with sleeves to the wrist, a face shield, rubber boots, safety goggles and mid-arm length PVC gloves while working with HF in a fume hood.  Calcium gluconate gel should have been nearby for immediate application on any exposed skin surface before the acid could penetrate the skin.

From this report  you can see why hydrofluoric acid (HF) is considered dangerous; it’s very toxic and readily passes into the bloodstream through exposed skin, a potent combination of risk factors. The fluorine ion in HF preferentially binds with calcium. Spilled HF acts as an anesthetic as it passes through the skin into the bloodstream where it quickly begins to dissolve bones and cause systemic poisoning. This is why HF is considered the highest risk acid in schools. Other acids may be corrosive but they do not contain this additional secondary effect that increases their risk.

As you may have guessed, no secondary school in the United States has safety gear or spill supplies available that resemble the recommended personal protective equipment described in the anecdote.

Both art classes and science classes can include classroom activities that use HF.  Though most science teachers are willing to eliminate their collection of old HF containers, that’s often  not the case with art teachers.  Why would an art teacher argue to keep their HF paste?  Because it has been used by artists for years in stained glass and other glass-etching techniques.

HF dissolves glass on contact, releasing harmful fumes, as described by Arthur Duthie in 1908 in Decorative Glass Processes. "The fumes escape from full strength acid so profusely as to be quite visible like a yellow smoke, and are not only obnoxious, but dangerous. Even at moderate working strength they will cause bleeding of the throat and nostrils in persons in whom these organs happen to be weak, while they commonly cause severe smarting of the eyes..."

Vignette # 4: Pyrophoric White and Yellow Phosphorus – Risk Factor 4

White phosphorus is pyrophoric, as is yellow phosphorus, which means they spontaneously ignite in contact with air.  Pure phosphorus is highly toxic and should be stored under water.

The Canning Jar on the left has a large amount of white phosphorus which, over time, has reacted make the water acidic and corroded the container’s lid.  This has allowed water evaporate over time and lower the water level to a quarter-inch above the top of the phosphorus sticks.  If the water layer lowered even slightly, the risk of spontaneous combustion are very high.

The teacher said he needed to keep it, because he used it in a lab.  Turned out that all he did was cut off  a piece, take it outside and drop it on the pavement where it released poisonous smoke and burned a hole in the asphalt.  Unlike him, I was unconvinced that this was “good science.”

Why would a middle school science teacher have this much white phosphorus, and why would he try to convince me that he needed to keep it?  

Upon reflection, I think there were three reasons:

  • Teenagers have poor attention spans, so having something spontaneously ignite looks “cool” and may get them to pay attention to what’s going on, if only for a minute or two.
  • The teacher didn’t notice that the water level had dropped and didn’t think about the consequences of the container’s contents spontaneously igniting on top of the wooden shelf in his stockroom filled with chemicals.
  • The teacher had been around for a long time and had become fond of his more esoteric chemicals and didn’t want to see them go.  Like me, he liked the chance to tell some “chemical war stories” and phosphorus is much more lively a focus than baking soda.
Vignette #5: Water Reactive & Peroxidizable Elemental Potassium – Risk Factor 4

Potassium metal is highly water-reactive.  Though not commonly found in schools, science teachers use it to demonstrate the properties of the alkali metals.  First a piece of lithium is dropped in water and fizzes.  Then a piece of sodium metal is dropped on the water, where it turns into a molten ball that dances across the surface, fizzing loudly.  When potassium is dropped added, it zings around the surface of the water with purple flames shooting into the air above it.

Potassium is sold as silver-gray sticks of soft metal under kerosene or mineral oil to keep moisture away.  It reacts with the air; first to form white potassium hydroxide crystals.  After time has passed, the reaction continues and forms potentially explosive peroxide crystals.  Peroxidized potassium, seen above in the photo on the right, is characterized by orange, red or purple crystals.

Peroxidized potassium was found in the same middle school stockroom as the white phosphorus shown earlier.  The teacher was unconvinced when I said the container must be disposed, saying “I can use it, I’ll just scrape off the orange stuff.”  I pointed out that the act of scraping could start a chain reaction that would cause the entire chunk to detonate.  He still persisted in saying he needed it.  Finally I said “Look, if you do that, it could blow your hands off.”  As if snapping out of a hypnotic state, he looked up and went “Oh!, Well then. Maybe I can just use the newer jar over here instead.”  After three days of treatment and $6,000 in fees, the stabilized material was disposed as hazardous waste.

March 06, 2010

Schools still are making the same mistakes...

From the Editor, Column, American School Board Journal>>, Glenn Cook, Editor-in-Chief, April, 2008.  

Having grown up on the Texas Gulf Coast, I know a little about disasters, natural and man made. Galveston County, where I was raised, is home to the two worst disasters in Texas history -- the 1900 hurricane and the 1947 explosion that rocked my hometown of Texas City. Yes, it's a somewhat dubious distinction, but a definite conversation starter.  And now, in a photo essay on Page 44, it's time to look back at number three on the list.

The March 18, 1937, explosion of the London School in New London, Texas, is the worst school disaster in U.S. history. More than 300 people were killed in a blast that, by all rights and reason, could have been avoided.  Seventy-one years later, the survivors still bear the emotional and physical scars from that day. And 71 years later, schools still are making the same mistakes in terms of how they keep chemicals safely away from children.

..."Time to Heal>>" is both a slice of history and a cautionary tale for school leaders. Read it and appreciate what the survivors have lived with for more than seven decades, then go and ask questions about your district's chemical safety plans. You'll be glad you did. 

March 05, 2010

Ensure that no one is ever injured...

Two years after retiring from active laboratory safety activities and upon leaving the lab safety discussion list, Dave Andrews wrote the following reminder to his colleagues:

"Fellow laboratory safety specialists: As we part company, I feel I must, for one final time, remind each of you in an academic setting that the lessons that you teach in your classes and your labs will be the habits that your charges will carry forward into industry.

If you teach safety and then allow other than 100% compliance with safe work practices in your laboratory spaces, your charges will go forth from your classes and routinely bypass safety rules and you may, one day, wonder why one of your smartest students died in a laboratory accident.

Make sure every rule in your laboratory is based on sound science and then enforce them 100% of the time for every student – and, most important, for your own work in the laboratory.

Make sure your students know that laboratory clothing and safety equipment makes no fashion statement, but is required for entrance into the lab.  Do not allow any laboratory activity to proceed without a procedure.  Remember that legal requirements are the absolute minimum you must do in your lab – the rules in your lab must be based on what is necessary to ensure that no one is ever injured by the activities conducted in your laboratories and that no one outside your laboratories has any exposure to any of the chemicals within your labs."

(Dave's response to my request for permission to reprint his words:  “Of course!  My goal is now, and has been, doing whatever is necessary to protect the American worker – especially when working with hazardous chemicals.  If these words will save one burnt finger, then they are well worth posting.  You have my permission to use them in any way you determine to be useful." Dave Andrews, 3/13/09)

Addition words of wisdom from Dave:

·         If your management cannot/will not support safety in your lab – QUIT – the job is not worth the potential grief and guilt that awaits you!

·         If you knew an employee (student) was going to have an accident in the lab tomorrow, would you be willing to fire them(remove them) today?

·         Students entering a laboratory training program should have an entrance project to research rule, prudent practices, and injury reports and develop a set of safety rules for the lab – this will grant ownership of the rules to the students.  This is not an easy job for you!

·         Safety glasses are for when no activities are going on in the laboratory – when chemicals are being used, goggles are a minimum – face shields are not eye protection – safety glasses or goggles must be worn when using a face shield.

·         Personal protective clothing is not impervious to hazardous chemicals – their only intended function is to provide reaction time – If you get splashed with chemicals , the job stops, the PPC comes off, and corrective measure begin.

·         All severely hazardous chemical splashes require use of the safety shower and removal of affected clothing – No she cannot go down to the locker room and shower there!!!

·         Compliance with applicable regulations cannot be a goal – they are a requirement for operations – the absolute minimum necessary.  You must evaluate ALL the hazards and select protective measure that will always protect the student.

·         Every injury, splash(even if no injury) or other incident in the laboratory requires evaluation and either changing the rules, increasing the frequency and intensity of training or discipline.  (Oh, and discipline is not the real answer – as all incidents are a direct result of inadequate management!)
-- Dave Andrews, CHMM (now expired)
  • Radiation Safety Officer and manager safety, health and Environment at one of the largest contract non-clinical laboratories in the world.  
  • Consultant/Instructor, Environmental & Occupational Consulting and Training, Inc
  • Instructor, Chemistry, Safety, Radiation Safety, and Environmental at a Nuclear Electric Generation plant
  • All of that without so much as a formal semester of college training, though I did take and pass (3.5) a post graduate level Toxicology class.

March 04, 2010

You can prevent explosions in your school.

Help make chemical safety part of your school's ongoing security audits and safety plan.

1) Talk with parents, educators and community leaders about making safety part of school culture.  Does everyone feel safe speaking up?  Don't go it alone. Find allies. If school staff or other parents are fearful or unresponsive, keep reaching out to others. Contact your local or state public health department, your local fire/life safety team, homeland security office or emergency preparedness center.  Your persistence could save lives.

2) Bring the Lessons to Your School Make safety part of the curriculum in science education, vocational education, occupational health and safety, community service, comprehensive school health and injury prevention, school security, emergency preparedness, environmental education, civic education, school maintenance, and operations.

3) Promote a sense of shared responsibility and accountability for student, employee and visitor health and safety in all school areas and activities. Does everyone feel "ownership" for a safe school?  

See Leadership Needed. What opportunities for leadership exist in your school?  Use these resources to update your school's values and technical skills for 21st century citizens. 
  • Least-toxic chemistry labs This collection of fully-scripted, least-toxic chemistry labs is ready for use by high school chemistry teachers.  The set includes student and teacher guides and meets the Washington State Educational Learning Requirements

Be Proud to be Proactive. Update your chemical inventory.

Commit to building the school and community partnerships that put a high priority on chemical clean outs and other precautionary steps.  

Many states have created resources to help schools do chemical clean-outs and to provide staff training because of accidents such as mercury spills and lab injuries. They can be allies and partners for school safety.  See US EPA Safe Chemical Management in Schools.

Does your school have a chemical inventory?
Hazardous chemicals are used in every school in both maintenance and the curriculum.  A chemical inventory lists the hazardous chemicals in science classes, labs, storerooms, art classes (such as photography, jewelry, painting and ceramics), in vocational shops (such as auto body, auto repair and printing), and in facility operations such as cleaning, painting, turf maintenance and pest control.

Why do a chemical inventory in your school?
  • It avoids waste, reduces hazards and saves money on inventory duplication.
  • It saves time searching for non-inventoried chemicals.
  • You avoid accumulating products that cost time and money for expensive hazardous waste disposal.
  • It makes sure that hazards are accounted for.  
  • The wise use of chemicals (purchasing, storage, labeling, and disposal) reduces injuries and prevents costly property damage.
  • It sets a high standard everyone can trust for health security and safety. 
  • It prevents explosions, chemical spills, fires, and poisoning.

    March 03, 2010

    Hazardous Materials in Schools:  A Hidden Problem

    Excerpt from the article, Impediments to Implementing P2 in the Public Schools by Marina M. Brock

    Environmental, health, and safety hazards in public schools are often serious — and difficult to address.

    While interviewing a local fire prevention officer from one of our communities, I discovered that his major community concern regarding hazardous material was not what I believed it to be.  He removed from his cabinet a file that was about eight inches thick, and told me it was a written history of safety issues from our regional high school.  The file represented five years of effort to improve conditions that he felt were a problem.

    Blinded by my own assumptions regarding our educational institutions, I didn’t believe him — but I humored him, wanting to get into his good graces.  We arranged an on-site interview at the high school, where I was sure I would be able to point out that the facility was not as much of a problem as his “untrained eye” could see.

    Our first on-site interview was with the science supervisor, a 20-year veteran of high school science teaching.  While we were in his classroom discussing hazardous material management issues, a janitor worked quietly in the rear of the classroom sweeping the floor.  The science supervisor was pleased to tell us that he had been disposing of his “heavy metal acids” for years using the “Flynn Method,” by inerting them and pouring them into the sink, which connected to the “tight tank” outside his classroom.

    I remember thinking to myself that the designers of the high school must have been incredible visionaries to have the forethought to install a tight tank in the early 1970s, when the facility was constructed.  Before I could ask about this, however, the heretofore silent janitor sheepishly mentioned that they didn’t have a “tight tank” at their school.  Obviously embarrassed, we all remained silent.  The “tight tank” mistake eventually resulted in a $55,000 environmental cleanup.

    I soon discovered that my initial assumptions regarding the conditions at this school were grossly in error.  I was astounded at the lack of even a basic understanding regarding simple concepts of health, safety, and environmental compliance....

    For the complete article go to Impediments to Implementing P2 in the Public Schools 

    Marina M. Brock is a senior environmental specialist with the Barnstable County Department of Health and the Environment (BCDHE).  

    Too often, administrators ask teachers to accept unsafe conditions

    The introduction of a lab program into a high school is an expensive venture. Lab facilities and equipment require capital expenditures. The replenishment of supplies requires additional annual funds. In addition, safety requirements place limits on the number of students that can be properly supervised in a classroom. 

    Too often, administrators ask teachers to accept unsafe conditions by packing too many students in the lab space. When teachers object, the administrator may suggest that we sacrifice the quality of teaching by not providing lab experiences at all. This Hobson's choice forces teachers to make a bad decision—unsafe conditions or poor instruction. 
    In contrast, high schools across the United States support football teams that similarly require large expenditures for equipment and subscribe to required safety requirements. The football coach is never asked to use sub-standard helmets or to cancel play. High school science should not be considered less important than high school football.
    Excerpts from comments by Dr. Arthur Eisenkraft, Distinguished Professor of Science Education; Director, Center of Science and Math in Context (COSMIC), University of Massachusetts, Boston, at the Hearing: Improving the Laboratory Experience for America's High School Students, before the Subcommittee on Research and Science Education Committee on Science and Technology, House of Representatives, 110th Congress, first session, March 8, 2007

    March 02, 2010

    Survivor Story: Jimmie Robinson

    Jimmie Robinson, a third grader in 1937, had walked over to the school “to see the Mexican hat dancers” at a PTA-sponsored event. She was buried in the rubble, with a half-dollar sized hole in her forehead. Her sister Elsie, three years older and injured herself, refused to leave until Jimmie was out.

    “I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for her,” says Robinson, whose father worked in the oil field. “They took me to the hospital, cleaned the dirt out of the hole in my forehead, and said if I lived 24 hours I might make it.”

    In her own words...

    As you may know, there was a PTA meeting being held in the school auditorium that afternoon and since the elementary school students had gotten out early, I walked over to the school where my sister's classroom was located in the basement of the school. The bell had just rung to let the children out --  everyone was gathering in their books and then the school exploded.

    All children in the next room to us were killed since the wall fell in on them. My sister never lost consciousness but I was completely covered by debris except for my hands. She proceeded to dig me out and stayed with me until someone picked me up and put me into a truck going to the Overton Hospital at which time we were separated.

    When she later came to the hospital, she searched for me and found me laying on a sheet in the corner of a hospital room unconscious and with head injuries.

    At that time, the hospital staff was taking pulses and removing bodies and she feared they would take me away. She had a nurse that knew our family to put a tag on me so I would not be taken and because she was ambulatory, she wandered all around with her right eyelid cut in two - but because she was not as badly hurt, the staff tried to take care of the more seriously wounded.

    My mother made it to the hospital and was just overcome by the carnage that she observed. My father, who worked in the oilfields, found her on the hospital steps and together they located me and the staff loaded me into an ambulance and sped me to Tyler where a neurosurgeon was on the way in to help with the injured. I was taken to Bryant's Clinic in Tyler, where I became the first patient of Dr. DiErrico (from Dallas) who removed the bone from my upper forehead and said "if she lives 24 hours, she will make it".

    In the rush to get me treatment, my sister Elsie was left in Overton. By the time they got her to Tyler, they had to put her in the Mother Frances Hospital. She did not believe that I had survived. After her eye was sewn up and I had regained conscious, they brought her to visit me and we both were reassured that we had indeed survived. I had no recollection of anything until I woke up in the hospital.

    My family moved in 1938 first to Hobbs, N.M. and then to the Houston Heights, where the family lived for many years. My sister Elsie died in 1998 of leukemia.

    We had three cousins who attended New London at the same time. Their names were Mildred, Sybil and Billie Jordan. My parents were Wilson and Corine Jordan. Because my grandfather's name was James and my parents had only daughters, I was named Jimmie (after my grandfather).  Elsie and I never went to the reunions of the survivors but did make a trip in about 1990 to the site of the memorial in New London.


    In 2005, Jimmie Robinson attended the reunion of survivors and families. She donated the dress she was wearing at the time of the explosion to the London Museum exhibits.

    It takes enormous persistence and courage

    Break the silence.  As many safety heroes 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 issues.

    "...those normally charged with protecting a school from liability (and its occupants from harm), ...may not be familiar with the scope of the risks. Too often, people with only a cursory understanding of the issues will consider themselves experts. Familiarity may also be surprisingly limited among those to whom a school generally turns for advice on health issues, such as school nurses, industrial hygienists, HVAC companies, consulting firms and health departments ...More often than not, they will under-emphasize the risks and over-emphasize the costs (and the inconveniences) of responding to a perceived problem."  "Legal Aspects of Pollution in Schools," Earon Davis, The Healthy School Handbook, National Education Association, 1995.


    Do you know your legal responsibilities?

    TO: Superintendents, Principals, Teachers . . .  

    RE: Safety at School

    It is the legal and professional obligation of all school personnel to provide a safe and healthy learning environment for students and staff.  Administrators, staff and students are responsible for developing and following safety protocols and regulations in the science laboratory. Each must maintain a concerted effort to avoid the apathetic and laissez-faire attitudes which are a major cause of accidents in the laboratory.

    Effective laboratory safety is not possible without the continued education and commitment of all stakeholders involved in learning and experimentation in the scientific environment. The ability of students to solve problems using science inquiry is a vital step in the intellectual development of future educators, medical and science professionals and citizens in general. There is significantly more involved in ensuring science safety than merely presenting a set of rules and regulations to the class. Motivation, dedication and understanding of the “whys of safety” are essential in the development of a safe and effective school laboratory program.
    -- from Superintendents, Principals, Teachers . . .Do You Know the Law? - The Science Reflector - NCSTA Newsletter by Linda M. Stroud, Ph.D., President, Science & Safety Consulting Services, Inc.,
    For a more thorough discussion on Legal Issues, see
    • "Legal Issues in Laboratory Safety" in the Science Laboratory Safety Manual.  Stroud, Linda M., Science Laboratory Safety Manual, Second Edition, 2008.
    • Kelly Ryan, Esq., author, Science Classroom Safety and the Law. Kelly Ryan Associates, Pasadena, CA.

    safety measures can’t be overlooked

    “The tragedy emphasized that safety measures can’t be overlooked in the handling of petroleum and its products,” Chapman said. “It was after this tragedy that a scent was added to the odorless natural gas.”

    I have seen how fast terrible things can happen

    Jacksonville resident recalls New London explosion | March 18, 2010, marked the 73rd anniversary of the tragic New London School explosion that happened so close to home all those years ago, the memory of which is still etched in the minds of the few that survived and in the minds of the ... -

    March 01, 2010

    2010 Healthy Schools Hero Marc Tafolla

    Every year, to mark the anniversary of the March 18, 1937 Texas School Explosion, I salute a Healthy Schools Hero who demonstrates extraordinary responsibility and inspirational leadership for safety in schools.

    The Healthy Schools Hero Award is an annual opportunity to tell the forgotten story of the worst school disaster in American history, to raise awareness of the urgent need to break the silence about serious hazards and unhealthy conditions in today’s schools, and to celebrate the kind of leadership that can save lives.  

    2010 Healthy Schools Hero: Marc Tafolla 

    The 2010 Healthy Schools Hero is Marc Tafolla, a Skadden Fellow at the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Education Opportunity Project (EOP) in San Francisco (formerly called the Education Equity Project.Tafolla’s accomplishments are a model of how to break the silence about hazards and fix unacceptable school conditions. (
    A staff attorney, Tafolla oversees the Education Opportunity Project (EOP). It is a joint project with the ACLU Foundation of Southern California. Tafolla’s work strengthens parent involvement and community partnerships to make schools the safe havens that children deserve.
    Tafolla, with the support and oversight of Brooks Allen of the ACLU-SC, helps local individuals and groups fix schools using the landmark Williams v. California settlement that mandates clean and safe facilities, qualified teachers, and up-to-date text books in California schools.  Tafolla, along with Allen, authored the EOP’s manual, Better Schools, Brighter Futures. Also see: Your Schools, Your Rights, Your Power

    By resolving a large number of Williams complaints, the EOP has created safer learning environments and better educational experiences for many of the Bay Area’s most vulnerable students.  

    Watch the video "The Fixer" to see how PTA parents, teachers and the Lawyer’s Committee for Civil Rights used the Williams process to resolve longstanding problems such as mold, electrical hazards, decrepit bathrooms, dust encrusted air vents and other unhealthy conditions that had been neglected for years. 

    Julie Harris, Former PTA president at the Clairmont School wrote,
    "The Williams Complaint gave us the forcing mechanism we needed to get repairs done at our school after years of minimal responses from the district. With extensive help from the EOP -- including many site visits and phone conversations--we filed a complaint listing more than 150 health and safety hazards -- and began to see a response right away. Exposed wires were covered, water-damaged ceiling panels replaced, and dust-clogged vents cleaned out. We even had our leaking gym roof retarred, and the board has just approved work on our HVAC system and bathrooms. We are so grateful to Marc Tafolla and the EOP for showing us how to use the Williams Complaint and for walking us through every step of the process." April, 2009
    Prior to the Williams settlement, claims of “discrimination” needed to be based on a child’s ethnicity, special education status or English language fluency.  “Now, anyone who sees a hazard can file a complaint about unacceptable conditions in a school.” Says Marc Tafolla.  “Most importantly, Williams complaints work.”

    Read about other successes below.*  Also see: What is Williams?

    EOP in Action 

    The Education Opportunity Project, with the help of pro bono attorneys from four law firms, does community outreach, provides trainings, and files complaints on behalf of parents, students and community members and builds grassroots partnerships to remedy unacceptable school conditions.  

    The EOP’s advocacy activities focus on ensuring that school districts meet the obligations and use the resources provided by Williams
    Loni Allen, Education Specialist at Parents Helping Parents (PHP), a non-profit, community-based, parent-directed family resource center, said, 
    Marc Tafolla is amazing. Marc has created an effective process to resolve problems that doesn’t polarize people. The result of his work is that the people become involved in a solution that impacts not only students, but also staff and a community. Imagine a process that results in improving accessibility to running water in bathrooms, pipes that aren’t exposed and presenting a safety hazard, comfortable environments that are conducive to learning, mildew free classrooms and offices, teachers who have materials to offer all children in all classrooms. His passion to offer collaborative opportunities to improve the health and safety for both students and staff is a gift to California. In fact, the process he promotes offers a model that could be shared in other states to improve the overall school conditions improving academic outcomes.”

    Like earlier Healthy Schools Heroes, the 2010 Healthy Schools Hero can inspire others to speak up and take responsibility for implementing the 21st century standards and safeguards that protect children where hazards and unhealthy conditions in school are routinely ignored – especially in science labs, storerooms, maintenance departments, supply cabinets and art and vocational education classrooms.

    The Heroes Award is part of an ongoing campaign, Lessons of the 1937 Texas School Explosion, to dedicate March 18 as a day to promote a school culture that brings "safety" from the margins to the core of school curriculum and community culture.  

    The story of the 1937 Texas School Explosion needs to be part of our national legacy because the decision-making that created and ignored the conditions that led to the 1937 explosion is the same type of decision-making in too many schools today. See Bring the Lessons of 1937 to Your School and Update your chemical inventory.

    A Lack of Precaution

    On March 18, 1937, in the small oil-rich town of New London, Texas, a gas explosion killed 319 students, teachers and visitors while in the supposed safe haven of a new state-of-the-art public school.  Hundreds were severely injured.

    The official Court of Inquiry found a series of design, building and operations problems, yet named no one responsible.  The Court concluded, “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.)  Read more: What went wrong?

    After this tragedy laws were passed to require adding a warning odor to natural gas.  And, the Texas Engineering Practice Act was created to set standards to "safeguard life, health, and property and protect the public welfare."  

    Lessons Lost  

    Surprisingly, additional safety measures recommended by the 1937 Court have yet to be implemented in most 21st century schools -- to hire technically trained administrators for modern school systems, to conduct more rigid inspections and more widespread public education, and to adopt a comprehensive, rational safety code.  
    * EOP Activities and Accomplishments in the past 2-1/2 years.

    EOP has given approximately 70 presentations to over 1600 people all over the Bay Area.  The majority of these presentations are to small site-based groups and range from introductions to in-depth trainings.

    EOP has filed approximately 650 complaints on behalf of 89 individuals.  (While one single individual acts as the complainant, those complaints may be based on dozens of teacher surveys and parent observations.)   Between September 2009 and March of 2010, EOP helped 15 individual complainants file approximately 200 complaints about instructional insufficiencies, locked and closed restrooms, and school facilities which pose a danger to the health and safety of staff and students.  

    The facilities complaints have ranged from broken heaters at an entire school; mouse, rat, and pigeon infestations; a classroom with windows that did not have emergency releases for the bars in case of fire; and a portable classroom with such pervasive water intrusion problems that a mushroom was growing through the tile floor.  

    Fixing Unsafe School Facilities

    Hayward Unified:  EOP partnered with community members in Hayward Unified to file over fifty complaints related to unsafe school facilities.  Students passed out surveys, teachers detailed deficiencies and helped the EOP conduct a campus inspection, and parents lead the organizing efforts overall.  When EOP presented to the group initially, they said that they had been inspired by the EOP’s work at Claremont Middle School; the informal leader told EOP staff that she wanted her high school “to be the next Claremont.”  
    United Teachers of Richmond use of the Better Schools Manual:  
    After distributing at least one manual to each school site, the EOP intake line started receiving calls for assistance from teachers and parent who used the Better Schools, Brighter Futures manual to identify complaints.  The United Teachers of Richmond requested a large number of manuals for use by teachers and staff.  The manual was also translated into Spanish by a dedicated group of volunteer translators to ensure that we can properly conduct outreach to the Spanish speaking community.

    Civic Engagement/Youth Development: 
    The EOP has also been working with the Civic Engagement and Youth Development initiative including groups and schools such as the Richmond High School Law Academy, SF Youth Commission, Coro Fellows, and a Social Justice Academy to lay the groundwork for increased student engagement in Williams work. 

    The Social Justice Academy:
    The staff of the EOP worked with the lead teacher of a Social Justice Academy to integrate Williams directly into Academy curricula. 

    The Richmond High School Law Academy:  
    The EOP and volunteer attorneys helped the students in the Richmond High School Academy conduct a walk-through of their school to check for compliance with the minimum standards established by Williams.  When Richmond High School was awarded a $3.8 million grant to make emergency repairs under the Williams Settlement Legislation, the EOP worked with the students of the Richmond High School Law Academy to file a Public Records Act request to ensure transparency and accountability in the disbursement of grant funds. EOP helped students analyze the results of their Public Records Act request and draft a response; and helped students testify before their district’s Board of Education facilities sub-committee. 

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