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February 4, 2012 - 8:44pm

School officials introduce environmental testing firm to 'reassure' the community

posted by Howard B. Owens in Le Roy.

UPDATED Sunday morning to improve some writing, add a couple of facts left out and clarify a statement or two.

On a poster in the library at Le Roy High School is a quote from Sherlock Holmes: "When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth."

While a state report issued Friday, ennumerates specific reasons there are no environmental or infectious causes behind 16 students developing tics since the fall, there are still doubters.

Many of those doubters were at a community meeting Saturday morning at Le Roy HS, some even getting quite angry.

The meeting demonstrated that Le Roy has become a divided community. Speakers who backed, or seemed to back, the conversion disorder diagnosis were applauded by one group of people. The people who demanded more testing and accused Superintendent Kim Cox of not doing enough to protect their children were applauded by another group of people.

The meeting was called to introduce the media and the community to the staff of  Leader Professional Services, with primary offices in Rochester and Buffalo.

The morning began with a press conference, then the public meeting, and then Cox took more media questions after the meeting.

Mary Ellen Holvey (top inset photo), senior industrial hygienist for Leader, presented about a dozen slides (audio link below) outlining the testing and environmental data gathered so far and what additional testing will be done.

Leader is beginning with more air quality testing because, Holvey explained, the results will help researchers determine what soil testing might be needed and where to do the testing.

Any contaminants in the soil, Holvey explained, will manifest via thorough air testing.

Soil testing must be done in a methodical manner, according to Leader staff. It involves a grid-pattern plan, specialized equipment and constant sterilization.  One researcher noted, you don't just show up with a spade from home depot and start digging.

While Cox didn't have the information available to discuss how much the new round of environmental testing will cost taxpayers, she said it was necessary, "because it is clear to us that our community needs more reassurance."

The environmental testing conducted in December by a researcher with BOCES should still be considered valid, Holvey said.

"The methods he used were appropriate," Holvey said. "His results were valid. I don’t disagree with his results. We’re just doing a broader-based investigation."

Cox repeated three times during the course of the morning, "Environmental causes are not going to discriminate."

"If we had an environmental cause here, we would see this in a wide spectrum of folks (effected)," Cox told the press. "We wouldn’t see just adolescent girls. We would see adults. We would see children and we would probably see a very different kind of condition."

After Holvey made her presentation, the mic was open for questions.

It didn't take long for the shouting to start.

Melissa Cianci stood up and yelled at Cox, "This school is not safe. You’re not doing anything. You’re not doing your job. You’re not doing your job.  You’re supposed to care for our children, and you’re not."

Cianci (photo, second from the bottom), tried to encourage parents to pull their children out of school until officials prove it is safe.

More than once Saturday morning, Cox said the school is safe.

Some people in the audience applauded Cianci.

Others applauded people like Tom Frew, who spoke of his daughter, who was diagnosed with mental health issues as a child and is now an educated mother and doing well.

"Try to keep your emotions under control and remember what this is all about," Frew said to parents of afflicted children. "I believe in time – it may not be next week; it may not be in the next thee weeks -- but I believe this situation will improve with your own kids."

Cox was applauded when she said, "There is so much misinformation and speculation and erroneous facts that are traveling at the speed of light. They have caused great concern and distracted us from our main mission, which is that we want our students to get better and get back to peace and normalcy. We want to assure our community that our school is a safe place to be."

About dozen people, of the many who applauded, stood as they clapped after Cox defended keeping Bob Bowcock, a researcher for Erin Brockovich, off school property a week ago.

"I think you can appreciate that we would not want just anybody to show up and just do and start digging in the ground," Cox said. "That isn’t the strategic way you do this. Reputable companies are going to go through a process.

"They need to have the background of where we’ve been and be able to map out where we need to go, otherwise we could end up missing something that is very important, or getting parts of information and not really getting a clear picture. That’s why we wanted to go with a company that has a plan for us."

Cox said school spokesman Bill Albert has talked with Bowcock and invited him to submit a plan for environmental testing to be done side-by-side with Leader, but so far, she said, Bowcock has refused to participate in such a protocol.

During the pre-meeting press conference, a journalist asked about reports of yellow ooze spotted on the athletic fields.

Cox explained that the district has learned that the yellow substance is something common to Kentucky Bluegrass sod. It's a fungus that other schools and local homeowners have experienced.

But no parents or students had ever mentioned the yellow ooze until the national media got involved.

"I got an email from California from USAToday saying, 'What’s the yellow ooze on your fields?' " Cox said. "I sent out my buildings and grounds person to look for it because we didn’t know what they were talking about.  Then we talked to some of the community members and they said, ‘Oh, sometimes when we’re out playing soccer sometimes it shows up on our shoes.' So then we researched it and found out what it was. When people ask a question, we’re going to research it and we’re going to find the answer."

There were a few questions about supposed hydrofracking at gas wells on school property, and Holvey said Leader will develop a plan for environmental testing related to the wells.

There was reportedly a spill of brine, used in hydrofracking, at a well during the summer.

In WNY, brine is the common term for salt-treated water spread on roadways to help melt ice, but in the gas industry, brine can also include barium, cadmium and chromium.

In the morning press conference, some reporters focused on dead trees and grass near a well, apparently unaware that brine, even industrial brine, contains high concentrations of salt, which is fatal to vegetation.

When a self-proclaimed environmental journalist got up to speak at the community meeting, and insisted that the school hadn't adequately addressed the brine issue, some audience members applauded his statement.

A DEC report previously found no violations related to the brine.

With so many parents still upset and concerned about whether the problem is being adequately addressed, Cox told the media after the meeting that she understood their attitudes.

"They are parents," Cox said. "These are their babies. Of course they are going to do whatever they can find an answer that is tangible and that they can fix. When it’s something that is being presented to them that’s unusual or different or a little more difficult to understand, then that (revelation of the diagnosis) is a natural reaction. Then when they're presented with a lot of information, some accurate, some inaccurate, some exaggerated, and there’s so much confusion around it, they're going to get emotional. I don’t blame people for loving their children."

Audio: Mary Ellen Holvey discusses the environmental testing plan (mp3).

Howard B. Owens
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Chris Charvella
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I've been doing some more thinking on this and I have to ask: Other than the affected individuals being teenage girls, is there any other reason the school has been the focal point of this investigation?

John Woodworth JR
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I do not know Chris. As a parent of three teenagers who attend LeRoy. One can only speculate that because, MR Bowcock was removed from the school's premises that, some believe MS Cox is involved in a school conspiracy. Maybe, the lack of local and state official's involvement. Then again maybe because, MS Cox continuously updates the students parents of the situation as needed.

All I know is this whole issue is out of control! Test after test after test, some of these girls' parents are not going to believe whatever they are told. Conspiracy Theory 101, the world is out to get them!

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