The Summer Discovery enrichment program, which includes a science class in which a batch of chemicals exploded at Murch Elementary School on Monday and severely burned two 9-year-olds, does not comply with a major provision of a recently established D.C. school system policy governing the use of school property by outside groups.
The policy, issued last month by D.C. School Superintendent Floretta D. McKenzie, became effective immediately, but officials have not enforced the guidelines in all cases, they said.
As part of the policy on "the use of schools for school-aged child-care and enrichment programs," educators and others not employed by the school system but who conduct programs and activities inside schools, must submit "use agreements" to the D.C. Board of Education.
Charles G. Butta, director of Summer Discovery, said he was never asked to sign such an agreement. A school system official said that there is no use agreement on file for Summer Discovery.
According to George Margolies, director of the school system's legal services division, such use agreements are legally binding and ensure that users of school buildings state how they intend to use classrooms, auditoriums, gymnasiums and other parts of the buildings.
In turn, the agreements also are used by officials to notify users of "specific conditions and restrictions applicable to the particular grant of use."
Following the explosion at Murch, which occurred during an experiment designed to teach 8-to-10-year-olds how to make hand-held fireworks called sparklers, McKenzie announced plans to tighten rules covering the use of buildings by independent groups.
Butta said that although there was no formal use agreement, he told Murch Principal Mary Gill and parents of Murch students that chemistry would be taught and that the sparklers experiment would be conducted.
Hours after the explosion, school system spokeswoman Janis Cromer said Gill and other administrators at Murch told McKenzie that they did not know that instructors would attempt the chemistry experiment, which involved explosive chemicals outlawed under school rules. Cromer said that when administrators reviewed the program several weeks ago, there was "no mention of the sparklers experiment."
In an interview this week, Butta said, "It's not a fact that chemistry showed up that morning. The curriculum was not a surprise to anyone."
Butta said that his two-week program, designed to give gifted students intensive instruction and motivation, is a pilot project designed to serve as a model for after-school programs that he plans to offer other public schools.
Butta, a doctoral candidate in education at American University, codirected enrichment programs there before branching out on his own as C.G. Butta and Associates, a nonprofit corporation, he said.
There are 16 summer enrichment and recreational activities being operated in public schools under use agreements by independent educational consultant groups and the D.C. Department of Recreation, officials said. They noted, however, that an undetermined number of similar programs not covered by use agreements are also being conducted at school facilities.
Several parents of children currently enrolled in Summer Discovery, which costs $165 per child, have praised the program despite Monday's explosion.
Chemistry and pyrotechnics specialists said that the substances used in the experiment were improperly handled and did not match the standard composition of professionally manufactured sparklers.
Amy Rispin, a chemist employed by the Environmental Protection Agency and the parent of a child enrolled in the Summer Discovery program, disagreed with the assessment that the experiment was improperly handled.
"I had confidence in the program and I still do," she said. "One does have accidents from time to time, but [program instructors] took all required safety precautions."
Rispin said Butta told her weeks ago that the experiment would be tried. "I expected the children to be handling real chemicals and using proper lab precautions." Rispin said her daughter Sarah is "thrilled with the program."
Matthew Levinson, 10, who was in a classroom next door to the laboratory where the chemicals exploded while being mixed in a bowl by a boy student, said the accident "made everybody nervous and scared." But classes have returned to normal, he said.
"We're not doing any more chemistry," he said, "but we're doing biology, studying cells. We used our fingers to scrape cells from inside our mouths and we put samples under a microscope. We learn more in one day here than in a couple of weeks in regular school.
"Everybody seems to be a lot more careful, now." Matthew told a reporter that several parents and youths had donated blood for use in a skin-grafting experiment for the two injured boys who remain in serious condition at Children's Hospital.