Fury and Worry Fuel Malibu Parents, District In the Hot Seat

The beginning of August is normally the time for parents and children to enjoy the waning days of summer vacation and start shopping for back to school supplies, but summer 2014 has been far from normal for Malibu families. 

Many remain angry at the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District and unconvinced that Malibu High, Middle School and Juan Cabrillo Elementary are safe enough for their children to attend. According to sources with knowledge of the situation, at least 15 students have been withdrawn from the schools by their parents because of the ongoing environmental situation. That number could rise as the first day of school nears and certain questions remain unanswered. 

“My kids do not want to leave their schools, teachers and friends and it is so unfair that we are being put in this position by the district,” said Malibu parent Beth Lucas, who is still undecided as to whether she will allow her kids to remain in the district. Classes begin Tuesday, Aug. 19. 

Dozens of letters have streamed in to Superintendent Sandra Lyon, Malibu City Councilmembers and Board of Education members, mostly urging local leaders for clarity on the environmental safety of Malibu’s schools. 

Much of the urgency has been fueled by testing results funded and released by local activist group Malibu Unites (MU) and the D.C.- based group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). Those results showed some classrooms contain caulk consisting of up to “one-third” cancer-causing carcinogens known as PCBs. The testing was completed after members of MU and PEER grew frustrated with the district and apparently took matters into their own hands by removing caulk samples from classrooms at Juan Cabrillo Elementary School, Malibu High and Malibu Middle School. In the aftermath, Lyon criticized MU and PEER for sampling caulk materials without district knowledge, a response some parents deemed inappropriate. 

“To add insult to injury, Sandra Lyon has the gall to respond to this revelation with a complaint that the Juan Cabrillo samples were taken ‘surreptitiously.’ Who cares?” parent Joshua Malina wrote in a letter to the editor this week

“Our classrooms are toxic. A year has been lost,” he continued, in reference to nearly a year ago in October when news of the environmental scare first broke as three diagnoses of thyroid cancer and other thyroid illnesses among teachers caused some to fear the illnesses had been caused by building materials at the aging schools. 

Malina, along with a number of other parents and leaders of MU/PEER, have outlined four requests of the district: 

-Provide portable classrooms for students and teachers by the time classes start Aug. 19. 

-Test caulk in all classrooms built before 1979. 

-Remove all PCB-containing materials if they are above the legal federal threshold of 50 parts per million. 

-Use funds from Measure BB and Measure ES to remediate environmental toxicity. 

In response to the spate of emails, Lyon and other officials have gone on the defensive in the past week, remaining adamant in following the district’s course of action, largely laid out by the district-contracted firm Environ, along with input from the Environmental Protection Agency and the Calif. Department of Toxic Substances Control. 

In a lengthy FAQ statement issued this week, Lyon said the presence of PCBs alone does not indicate immediate danger. Additionally, results of surface and air tests conducted by the district this summer have been “extremely positive,” and thus far allowed for the reopening of the old gym building and building A at Malibu High. 

“Environ is utilizing proven testing and cleaning tactics, according to EPA and DTSC standards, and successfully used in other Districts with similar concerns. The District does not set these standards, nor are we experts in this field. For this reason, we are relying on highly qualified environmental experts and government oversight agencies to move this testing and cleaning program forward,” Lyon wrote. 

Interim Malibu High Principal David Jackson this week offered campus tours to parents in an effort to assure them of ongoing measures being taken to test campus safety. 

He invited parents to “see first-hand the cleaning procedures we are following this summer.” 

The district, Lyon said, is using Environ’s test results to dictate where classes are held. 

“There are some frustrated parents – and we also have a number of parents who are eager to get back to the norm of educating our Malibu kids,” she told The Malibu Times. “We support our parents with whatever decisions they make. We’re making decisions based on the testing results.” 

Board of Education member Laurie Lieberman also issued her own letter in response to Malibu parents. 

“We hear you. We hear your questions and concerns and we take them seriously,” she wrote, adding that the district is trying to coordinate more direct access between parents and Environ experts. 

Other parents have urged Malibu’s elected officials to step up the city’s involvement in the situation, a request that Councilwoman Laura Rosenthal and Mayor Pro Tem John Sibert said they are doing their best to complete. 

“[We have] asked for a town hall/panel discussion with all of the major players: EPA, DTSC, Environ, the district, Malibu Unities and PEER,” Rosenthal and Sibert wrote in a guest editorial submitted to The Malibu Times

When asked if a town hall was being planned, Lyon said it was something the district is “looking very hard at,” but no date has been set. 

The Malibu Times is the first newspaper in Malibu, serving the community since 1946.

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