By Cindy Mizaku & Kimberly Brown
Over 150 people attended the Board of Education at William J. Brosnan School on Feb. 6. following the closing of the school to further discuss the relocation of its students.
Tensions were high in the board meeting as parents and students dressed in matching purple shirts that read “#NMSstrong” were vocal about what they claimed to be a premature closing of the school. They read aloud prepared speeches in front of the board, stating that there is no real danger in the school and that it should be reopened.
“Please don’t keep us away from NMS unless there is a real reason,” seventh-grader Sienna Ricardo said in front of board members. “Although we are making the best of the new situation, we love NMS. We are so happy there and would love to go back,” she said over cheering crowds.
Northport Middle School (NMS) officially closed on Jan. 23, relocating about 660 students due to reported detection of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) including mercury and benzene in the air. Over several years, filed complaints piled up from students who said that the heavy odors in the classrooms gave them respiratory issues, headaches and nausea.
“I want everybody to know that this decision was made based on the facts that were presented to me at the time that they were presented,” Superintendent Robert Banzer said in response to displeased parents.“We will continue to follow the facts.”
Other students, including tenth-grade Northport High Schooler, Alexa Panzeca, said that they experienced health issues first-hand while attending middle school. Due to the high levels of mercury in the air, Alexa missed over 25 days of school and developed anemia. At the time, Northport Middle School did not address any of the health issues that she and her classmates faced and continue to seek medical help for.
“I went to see a specific specialist and so did a bunch of other kids because everyone noticed it. I had friends that also have high carbon monoxide levels,” Alexa said. “My freshman year of high school, I started to notice [my health conditions] go down, and I didn’t have to be on iron for anemia. I didn’t get headaches anymore.”
The building’s contaminated air sparked Alexa’s anxiety because she knew she’d be sick during the last few hours of school, her mother, Jean Marie Panzeca, said. “The district swept it under the rug. They didn’t want to do anything about it. I requested a variant after I had three doctors’ notes.”
New York Senator Charles Schumer pressed the Environmental Protection Agency to investigate Northport Middle School and determine the scope of the toxic chemicals. In the letter, he writes that district officials made the right choice in closing the school given that environmental firm, PW Grosser Consulting, found 632 ppm of mercury in the school’s cesspool when the actionable level is 3.7 ppm.
“The Board of Education and I firmly believe it is in the best interest of our students and staff to relocate,” Banzer wrote in a letter sent to the Northport Middle School Community, after testing of the school’s air quality showed no detection of VOCs.
During the meeting, parents lined up in front of board members as they voiced their concerns about disrupting their children’s academic lives. They also questioned whether the school board based their decision to close the school and run further testing on scientific results that pointed to danger.
“Too often misinformation spreads like wildfire, and social media hysteria drives our thinking rather than rational thought and science,” mother of seventh-grader at Northport Middle School, Erin Triolo, said, “If the science continues to show that Northport Middle School is a safe learning environment, then please reopen the doors of this incredible facility as soon as possible.”
In the spring of 2017, parents were sent an email from the district stating that there were chemicals stored underneath the classrooms in the K-wing, Northport resident and mother of three, Denise Curci Schwartz, said. While her son was attending the school at the time, she dug deeper. In old newspaper articles she found that the school’s storage of toxic substances had been having negative impacts on the health of students and faculty since 2001.
Schwartz started the Facebook pages, “Close Northport Middle School” and “Concerned for (K)ids,” to provide a platform for parents and faculty to share their experiences at the school as well as post updates on notices from district officials, toxicology and medical results.
“Our whole goal is to educate,” Schwartz said. “Getting to the bottom of what has happened to the people who are already sick and what they were exposed to, and again, to not let it happen ever again to another person.”
Thirty-year retired science teacher at Northport Middle School, John Kobel, said that he was diagnosed with mold poisoning, heavy metal poisoning and asthma—a direct result of breathing in the chemicals at the school since 1974. He has been fighting skin, lung and prostate cancer for a number of years.
“I don’t care if it happens again,” Kobel said after he was asked to sit down in the board meeting. “I will be at every other board meeting to say my peace to protect those children and the staff.”