When School District 181 closed down Hinsdale Middle School last month after a black mold infestation, students missed classes for a time and then went to split shifts at a neighboring school. After a costly emergency repair, the school has reopened and students are back, but records obtained by the I-Team show that nothing should have surprised district administrators.
During the early January arctic blast, Hinsdale Middle School officials say a pipe froze and burst. School officials say mold was found growing behind sections of classroom drywall.
That is a familiar story, according to more than 1,500 pages of school employee emails and other records obtained by the I-Team under freedom of information laws.
Five years before the current outbreak of black mold at Hinsdale Middle School, this 2009 email to a district 181 official cites "mold. . . on drywall" and "the mold issue."
"I think a lot of teachers have known for a long time that things were not right here. We've had a turnover in administration and I don't know where things get lost in communication or where things don't go up the chain," said Heather Scott, co-president, teachers association.
The turnover resulted in this woman being hired as superintendent in 2010.
"I did hear as I first came in that there had been prior experiences," said Dr. Renee Schuster, District 181 superintendent. "I did hear about it from teachers."
These files suggest teachers have complained about mold and unhealthy building conditions here for more than two decades, but that there were never permanent, long-term solutions.
"People have had concerns for years and not enough has been done. Our biggest concern is the health of the students and staff," said Scott.
In 2011 the school's dean of students wrote: "Mold is an issue..." and he tells the district engineer to make it "an extremely high priority." In late 2011, district officials begin looking into proposals for "mold remediation" in the school, and records include pictures of mold on walls and under staircases, with some photos provided by teachers.
"Each time mold or any kind of wet situation has been found during my tenure we have addressed it at that point. That occurred multiple times," said Schuster.
John Norton has a daughter in the school and has a Ph.D. in civil engineering systems, specializing in environmental health.
"That's where I as a father, I'm concerned, over the long term as an engineer and scientist, I've done this my whole life, I'm going, 'My God they're not doing anything they are supposed to be doing,'" said Norton.
In 2012, even as an outside contractor was paid to remove spot mold, there was a steady flow of mold complaints from staff, with the "potential to be a huge problem" according to one email. Another pointing to "mushrooms growing" from one mold site. But another school official seems to belittle any health concern, asking whether it involves: "Asbestos? Mold? Rats? Ghosts?"
A survey of teachers last October found chronic headaches, allergy symptoms, skin rashes and breathing problems. One teacher wrote: "It seems like there's no room that's safe. . . sick building."
ABC7's Chuck Goudie asked: "It could be a health issue for some?
"For some. But as far as it being an unsafe building for most, the tests are showing it is a safe building however people can even have allergies even in a safe building," said Dr. Schuster.
One teacher wrote of concerns that officials are covering up the problem.
"I don't know if it's a cover-up as much as maybe we've thought we dealt with the problems and maybe we haven't dealt with it fully," said Scott.
The superintendent describes communication with parents as "outstanding" and says mold reports have all been on their website.
"It's safe currently but mold can come back," said Schuster.
She says the 38-year-old building urgently needs a new roof and that possible long-term fixes include completely replacing the exterior, overhauling the interior or putting up a new building. The school's original mold treatment contractor Hygieneering was replaced last fall. Company executives declined comment.
Last week, superintendent Schuster resigned effective in June.