Jury Backs Teacher Who Says Room Made Her Ill

By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 22, 2007

A Montgomery County jury has found in favor of a teacher who said she was driven from her job by mold in a portable classroom at a Burtonsville school.

Jurors in state Circuit Court found Thursday that Shirley Washington, who taught English at Banneker Middle School, contracted an occupational disease and is entitled to worker's compensation from the state, according to her attorney, Bruce M. Bender of Rockville.

Washington is one of a number of teachers and students in the county who have reported falling ill from exposure to mold and other toxins inside portable classrooms. In the largest such case, school officials replaced eight portable classrooms last year behind Bells Mill Elementary School in Potomac after 41 students and several teachers reported ailments. The entire school is scheduled for replacement by 2009, according to Principal Jerri Oglesby.

But although all the teachers who got sick at Bells Mill returned to work in clean classrooms, Washington has not taught again.

Assigned to portable classroom P-6 at Banneker in fall 2004, the 20-year veteran developed fatigue, coughing, wheezing, headaches and other problems, all of which "we believe are a result of exposure to mold," Bender said. She left the school system in January 2005 "and has not been able to work since," he said.

School officials said Washington failed to prove that mold caused her illness and stressed that the jury verdict did not specify the nature or cause of her malady.

"We will be asking the judge to set aside the verdict in this case, because there was no evidence presented during the trial that the mold had anything to do with the illnesses for which she is seeking compensation," said Brian Edwards, spokesman for the school system.

Washington went to work at Banneker in fall 2003 and was placed in P-6 the next year. She filed a series of complaints about air quality starting in mid-December, saying her symptoms had appeared when the air conditioner in the classroom was turned off in fall.

In one complaint, she wrote of "lack of air circulation; wet ceiling tiles; dusty vents" and "old stains" on the carpet, and she reported symptoms of "dry coughs, shortness of breath, running nose, running eyes." In a subsequent memo, she said she had missed two weeks of school with an upper respiratory infection, adding that "the physician believes my problem may well be related to/activated by allergies to particles inside my room."

Washington said she believes the portable classroom in which she taught has been moved and said she has seen it outside another school, Rosemary Hills Elementary in Silver Spring. School officials would not confirm or refute that claim Friday.

Portable classrooms are thought to be especially prone to problems in air quality because of poor ventilation, lower construction standards and vulnerability to the elements and to damage during relocation from school to school.

The Montgomery school system has several hundred portable classrooms and is considered a national leader in addressing air quality problems. The system employs two teams to investigate such problems; most school systems have none.

An air quality employee visited Washington's classroom and reported stained ceiling tiles and mold growth caused by poor drainage and a roof leak. He found elevated carbon dioxide readings inside the classroom. A subsequent report noted a defect in a heat pump that had prevented fresh air from being drawn into the room.

Washington said she developed so many physical and neurological problems that she was unable to return to work. She filed a claim with the Maryland Workers' Compensation Commission, which ruled last year that Washington did not have an occupational disease.

This week's jury verdict, which followed a two-day trial, reversed that ruling. Washington's case will now be remanded to the state commission, but only after the school system exhausts its appeals, Bender said. The appeals could take "a couple of years," he said.

Washington "is very pleased" with the verdict, Bender said, "but she knows she has a long road ahead."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company