Malibu High: Classrooms Cleaned, Reopened as School Resumes

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Malibu High School

As Malibu students returned to classes after a two-week winter break on Monday and Tuesday, the school district issued an update on a series of steps taken at Malibu High and Juan Cabrillo Elementary over the break as part of its ongoing effort to address environmental health concerns at the schools. 

Latest developments include deep-cleaning of several classrooms thought to be contaminated, teachers being allowed back into closed classrooms and the district’s search for an environmental engineering firm. 

Concerns over possible contaminants at the school flared in early October, when a number of MHS teachers expressed fear in a letter to the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District that the diagnosis of three teachers with thyroid cancer and health problems among other teachers could be related to contaminants on campus. Carcinogens known as PCBs were commonly used in building materials until a federal ban was implemented in 1979. The district has been ordered to remove all caulk containing PCBs. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) approved the district’s removal and cleanup plan last month. 

Certain classrooms cleaned 

Despite parent complaints at a board meeting last month that every classroom at Malibu High needed to be cleaned due to high volume of construction dust and dirt, the district elected to only clean classrooms of the highest immediate concern over winter break. 

“Our immediate concern has been to get the rooms cleaned that were vacated due to concerns teachers had about their own health and their working environments,” Supt. Sandra Lyon wrote in an email to The Malibu Times. “We … will continue to explore our cleaning plan for the rest of the school, and the district.” 

The district hired Long Beach-based cleaning firm National Response Corporation (NRC) to clean numerous classrooms at Malibu High using “best management practices,” according to Lyon: all rooms in the main middle school building, all theater building rooms, and the library and gym faculty office. 

According to documents released by the district, NRC conducted surface cleaning, vacuumed all visible dust, scrutinized all areas near window frames known to contain caulk with PCBs and examined them to assure no visible dirt, dust or other trash particles were present. 

Lyon said a district-formed Malibu environmental task force is still working to develop a district-wide standard for better cleaning methods, which will later be applied to the rest of the campus and other schools. 

EPA reviewing preliminary air testing 

Before cleaning began, the district conducted a round of preliminary air tests on 11 rooms that had not been previously tested, including several in the main middle school building. A round of post-cleaning air testing took place Jan. 4-6. The EPA is currently reviewing all results of the testing. 

It is unclear if the rooms with the highest PCB values were tested with the windows open or closed. The post-cleaning tests were to be performed with windows closed and EPA oversight. Initial post-cleaning testing plans, presented by the district’s consultant, Mark Katchen, were to be done with the windows open, but EPA officials approved the plans only under the condition that they be closed. 

Teachers allowed to return to rooms 

Teachers who were moved from their classrooms when the health scare first surfaced in October are now allowed back into their classrooms following winter break cleaning. The EPA has deemed all Malibu High rooms safe, according to Lyons, but the superintendent said teachers could decide independently whether to move back. 

“The EPA has said there is no problem with these rooms being occupied, particularly after the cleaning,” Lyon wrote to The Malibu Times. 

As of Monday, Lyon said two displaced teachers had opted to move back. 

“We believe teachers should determine what is best (and least disruptive) to their students’ learning and what is best for the teachers as we begin this process,” Lyon wrote in a letter sent to parents on Sunday. 

Displaced teachers have been holding classes in Juan Cabrillo classrooms and at Malibu United Methodist Church. 

Phylmar group, consultant Mark Katchen to be phased out 

After the EPA has finished reviewing test results from winter break, the district plans on cutting ties with environmental firm Phylmar Group and its lead consultant Mark Katchen, who were retained in October to “assume the lead role in identification, analysis, implementation and recommendations for all testing required at the facilities.” 

Some parents criticized the district for hiring Katchen, citing his past involvement in a similar case at Beverly Hills High School and alleged cover-up of environmental hazards at the school. 

Next, the district plans to hire an environmental engineering firm to carry on oversight of the situation. 

“The district must rely on proven professionals to oversee this technical work,” Lyon wrote to parents. 

David Mark Simpson contributed to this story. To read more on the status of the environmental situation at Malibu High, visit smmusd.org and continue checking malibutimes.com for updates throughout the week.