Citing ill effects from a chemical spill earlier this year, the Los Angeles Unified School District has given a medical leave--and a transfer--to the principal of Tweedy Elementary School in South Gate.
A group of angry parents promptly charged that the district's action shows that Tweedy, located in a heavily industrial area, is unhealthy for students and should be closed immediately.
"If the principal has to be reassigned because of health problems, what about the kids?" asked one parent, Patricia Stuck.
Stuck was one of about a dozen people who picketed the school Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, following Principal David Sanchez's announcement that he was leaving Tweedy. The pickets also handed out safety masks to students.
Meanwhile, the school district announced a plan that could move students from Tweedy within a year, by putting temporary bungalows on a site to be occupied by a new South Gate high school. (See accompanying story on this page.)
In a Dec. 5 letter to Tweedy parents, Sanchez wrote: "I will not be returning to Tweedy Elementary School as your principal. I have taken an illness leave on advice of my doctor." The medical leave was granted for two weeks.
In a brief interview with The Times this week, Sanchez said: "I informed the district that I was having a lung problem, nausea, headaches, a lack of thought processes. I was told that I would be reassigned. That it was in my best interest." Sanchez, 45, who has been a teacher and administrator in the district for 21 years, declined further comment.
But Sidney A. Thompson, associate superintendent in charge of operations, said that district officials "have made it clear that any staff member or youngster who appears to be affected will be given another assignment. That was the case with David Sanchez.
"David said he was having a reaction to the spill. His eyes were red. He said his doctor was concerned that he was allergic to the stuff down there. It seems to be an individual problem. Some people are affected more than others," Thompson said.
Ten months ago, a ruptured chlorine gas pipeline at the nearby Purex Corp.'s bleach plant forced evacuation of the 575-student school. More than 70 people, including 27 students, were hospitalized with complaints of nausea and dizziness.
Willene Cooper, one of the protesters at the school this week, was critical of Sanchez's reassignment.
"All they are doing is reassigning a principal. It's political. He is a good leader. He was on the parents' side," Cooper said.
John Greenwood, a school board member who represents the area, said Sanchez's health was the only consideration. "We are damned if we do and damned if we don't. The principal had a letter from his doctor that said he needed a leave of absence. We would have been derelict to leave him there," Greenwood said.
Greenwood conceded there are problems at Tweedy. "It is a lousy site for a school," he said. "It is in a heavy industrial area, but I don't believe students are in danger. It is not an emergency crisis."
Long-Range Solution Sought
But while the protesters said that they would like to see Tweedy closed immediately and students either bused to another school or moved to temporary bungalows at nearby South Gate Park, Greenwood said the school district backs a long-range solution involving the regional high school.
In the meantime, district officials said that parents have been given several options, including requesting transfers to other schools for their children and free medical exams to determine if children are affected by chemical emissions from nearby industries.
Greenwood cited Cooper Drum Co., which is next to the school, as an example of steps that have been taken to improve air quality at the school.
Edward Camarena, director of enforcement for the South Coast Air Quality Management District, said Cooper Drum has agreed to start its industrial work, which includes recycling 55-gallon steel drums, in the evenings rather than during peak school hours.
Camarena said the air quality district has taken temporary steps at Cooper Drum to alleviate noxious odors and continues to look for more permanent solutions.
The air quality district has cited seven companies since the February chlorine spill. The firms were cited for a variety of violations, including emissions of solvent odors and open spray-painting without a permit. The companies face a maximum $1,000 fine and/or six months in jail for failure to comply, Camarena said.
As for Tweedy, the school district is continuing medical examinations of students to see if they are suffering from any effects of the spill and from ongoing emissions, said Andrew Cazares, assistant superintendent for the Los Angeles Unified School District's Region B.
So far, more than 130 exams--which include a history of symptoms and a physical examination--have been conducted, Cazares said. Pulmonary exams, or lung testing, is scheduled for January, Cazares said.