After Northport Middle School was recently closed due to toxins being found on campus, concerns are growing over how the closure will impact the education of nearly 700 students who were transferred to other schools as a result.
Parents and students aired those concerns to the Northport-East Northport Schools Board of Education at its meeting on February 6, when the board gave an update on the situation.
“We owe our children the best,” Kelly Schwartz, a concerned parent, told the school board. “Let’s not pretend that the education is the same. It’s not. Let’s not pretend that the social and emotional aspects of middle school haven’t changed. They have. Yes, children are resilient, but let’s not continue to test their resilience. We need a plan.”
The students were transferred in January after the school’s environmental firm, PW Grosser Consulting Inc. (PWGC), reported to the school district that soil samples from two different septic systems at Northport Middle School contained elevated levels of benzene and mercury that will require further remediation per the Suffolk County Department of Health Services.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, long-term exposure to benzene can lead to anemia and cancer. Some short-term effects are headaches, dizziness, irregular heartbeat, and tremors. Low mercury vapor concentrations over a long time can cause neurological disturbances, memory problems, skin rash, and kidney abnormalities, the CDC reports.
It’s not the first time a Long Island school has been at least partly shuttered due to toxins. A similar situation occurred at three schools in 2019, when mercury vapors were detected, forcing school officials to close sections of Norman J. Levy Elementary School in Merrick, Park Avenue Elementary School in Amityville, and Miller Place High School. In those cases, the culprit was found to be synthetic flooring.
In Northport’s case, well-documented complaints about mysterious odors making students and staff members sick date back to the early 2000s. An inspection done in May of 2017 showed that there were higher than acceptable amounts of airborne chemicals in several classrooms.
After the inspection was completed it was discovered that the district was using the school’s basement to store petroleum-based products directly underneath the classrooms kids and teachers were spending hours in every day. The items were removed, the wing remained closed and kids were able to return to classes as normal. However, parents were still on edge about where they were sending their kids every day.
After PWGC’s recent report, middle school eighth graders were relocated to the high school, seventh graders were relocated to East Northport Middle School, and sixth graders were relocated to Norwood Avenue Elementary School. But students who were among those transferred say they feel ostracized as a result. Middle schoolers in the high school also don’t have locker space and must lug all their belongings around, students say.
“We are escorted to other parts of the building and it is embarrassing,” eighth grader Carly Ferara told the board. “We are not allowed to walk around without a sign on our neck basically stating that we don’t belong there. The high schoolers don’t want us there and I don’t blame them.”
The board has been trying to allay concerns. Before the meeting, Northport-East Northport Schools Superintendent Robert Banzer emailed parents to clarify what he said were inaccurate media reports on the findings of mercury in the cesspool.
“While the lab testing of the sediment showed an elevated level of mercury in the sample, the preliminary results showed no detectable concentrations of mercury vapor in the sample, the rain within the leaching pool, or anywhere within the building,” he wrote. “It is important that everyone understand that the assessment of the environmental concerns at [Northport Middle School] is not about the district taking a position or side that any individual or gripe may have. It is about gaining closure on those issues.”
As for the fate of Northport Middle School, final test results are due to be released at the end of March or beginning of April. The district will then decide if and when students will return.