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Students move to new building while asbestos investigation begins


Students and teachers of North Park Montessori School are preparing to move into a new building Wednesday, while local and state officials launch an investigation into how and why an asbestos breach occurred at their school at 3375 Cheney Ave. NE.

An open house is to be held at 6 p.m. tonight, Feb. 19, at GRPS University, a professional-development center at 1400 Fuller Ave. NE, to help students and parents get oriented to their new surroundings. The 350 students’ classes were canceled Monday and Tuesday after district officials learned on Friday that plaster being cut and drilled into during air-conditioning construction at North Park might contain asbestos.

A sample of the material sent to a New Jersey lab on Friday showed no asbestos, but officials plan to take dozens more samples.

About 350 parents attended an information session with health and safety officials Saturday, and another meeting will be set up with experts on the health effects of asbestos exposure. Long-term exposure among workers can lead to lung cancer, mesothelioma and other respiratory diseases, but little is known about short-term exposure to children, health officials say.

A meeting will be held within days to begin an independent investigation of the possible extent of exposure, and why there was a communication breakdown regarding an environmental contractor’s previous finding of asbestos in the plaster, district spokesman John Helmholdt told the school board Monday night.

The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services will lead the inquiry, working with the Kent County Health Department, other government agencies and MicroAir, the district’s asbestos abatement and assessment contractor.

Asbestos Presence was Known

MicroAir’s updated asbestos management plan for North Park had flagged the presence of asbestos in the building, including the plaster, Helmholdt said. But while that information was used for work on the boiler and windows, he said, “what we don’t know was why that was not referenced when they were looking at the plaster work.”

Since work began in November, eight to 10 classrooms have had cutting or drilling into plaster that has been identified as containing or possibly containing asbestos, Helmholdt said. A new contract worker last Thursday night reported that the plaster looked like it had asbestos, and the construction management company, Christman, informed the district on Friday, he said.

“We are fully committed to finding out what went wrong, why it went wrong, and how we can ensure something like this never happens again,” Helmholdt told the board. “Certainly there is concern there may have been exposure. What we don’t know is the extent of the exposure.”

Those with questions or concerns are encouraged to email northparkinfo@grps.org.

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Charles Honey
Charles Honey is editor-in-chief of SNN, and covers series and issues stories for all districts. As a reporter for The Grand Rapids Press/mLive from 1985 to 2009, his beats included Grand Rapids Public Schools, local colleges and education issues. Honey served as editor of The Press’ award-winning Religion section for 15 years and its columnist for 20. His freelance articles have appeared in Christianity Today, Religion News Service and Faith & Leadership magazine. Read Charles' full bio

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