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Lawsuit says Dearborn Heights school district covered up asbestos exposure

The former Carstens Elementary School building, on Detroit's east side, is one of many, many schools that have been shuttered in Detroit.
Sarah Hulett
Michigan Radio
Detroit Public Schools is offering 45 schools to charter companies.

Theresa Ely, a former custodian at Dearborn Heights school district No. 7, is suing her old employer for allegedly covering up asbestos exposure to some staff and students.

According to her lawsuit filed November 25thEly and another custodian were instructed in the summer of 2011 to speed up their work by cleaning asbestos-contaminated floor tiles in the schools with abrasive sandpaper, rather than removing the old floor wax with water as originally instructed.

Ely’s suit says soon “a white haze envelop[ed] the entire hallway,” covering both custodians in white dust while “students were writing messages in the dust near the stair well.” Neither custodian received any kind of protective gear, Ely says.  

"A white haze envelop[ed] the entire hallway...[and] students were writing messages in the dust near the stair well."

Two years later, Ely allegedly heard about another school staff member who died of mesothelioma after sanding “the asbestos tiles for years,” according family comments included in the suit.

Meanwhile, the suit alleges, then-superintendent Jeffrey Bartold told staff that the asbestos samples had been inspected and come back negative. But Ely’s suit says “the report was suspicious.” Her lawyer, Robert Fetter, says the asbestos inspector named in the undated report had in fact retired years before the report was supposedly written, and that parts of it appear pasted together, like sentences about inspecting “the home” rather than a school.  Fetter says the inspector denies ever doing such a report, though Michigan Radio hasn’t been able to reach him to confirm that.  

The asbestos inspector named in the undated report had in fact retired years before the report was supposedly written, and that parts of it appear pasted together.

Ely says she was so worried at this point that she went to the Michigan Occupational Safety and Health Administration, or MIOSHA. Around this time, then-superintendent Jeffery Bartold sent a memo to staff saying that everything was safe and that so far MIOSHA was indicating that “the District passed all legal requirements for asbestos-containing materials.”

But a month later MIOSHA’s report cited the district for safety violations related to the asbestos tiles, saying the district had exposed some employees and fining the schools $27,000. It also advised the district to get medical supervision for the exposed staff.   

Right before this came out, then-Superintendent Bartold sent Theresa Ely a written reprimand in May 2013 for “inflaming and provoking a reaction and concern” from school employees.

MIOSHA's report cited the district for safety violations...fining the schools $27,000. It also advised the district to get medical supervision for the exposed staff.

“MIOSHA indicated to you that the asbestos levels at the District were within…regulations, [but] that you continued to contact…employees [to say] that they should get ‘tested’ for possible asbestos contamination,” Bartold writes.  

Later in the fall of 2014, Ely got another written reprimand, this one from the more recent superintendent Todd Thieken. He reprimands her for “misconduct, false statements, absenteeism, and creating an unfriendly work environment and insubordination.”

The letter says she failed to notify her supervisor when she left work early one day due to illness, that she was absent 36 out of 142 work days from November through July of 2013, that the doctors’ notes she provided for three of those missed days weren’t accurate, and that she had been “spreading false rumors regarding…the presence of asbestos in District buildings and the harmful medical effects that may result from exposure.” Also, the reprimand says Ely’s “attitude and…dealings with other employees are unfriendly [and] unprofessional…”

Ely’s lawyer, Robert Fetter, says she has “suffered greatly” and asks the judge to hold the district liable for damages including “back pay, front pay, embarrassment and humiliation, pain and suffering, harm to reputation and any other such relief this Court deems justifiable.”

Michigan Radio reached out to both Todd Thieken and Jeffrey Bartold for comment. The district sent the following reply that we’re including in full:

" The health, safety and well-being of all Dearborn Heights School District No 7 (the “District”) students is the District’s number one concern, and the District is committed to ensuring that all students who attend school in the District are provided an excellent education in safe and well-maintained buildings.
The District engages multiple third-party environmental companies to ensure the District meets and exceeds the safety standards for schools set by both the State and Federal government. On June 5, 2013 MIOSHA found violations of proper procedure and protocol, but its investigation did not reveal any suspect asbestos-containing debris. The District properly posted the results of the June 5, 2013 MIOSHA citations and its appeal. Confusion appears to have arisen because the District’s original memorandum, issued to employees on May 16 2013, predates the citations issued by MIOSHA on June 6 2013, and the result of the District’s subsequent appeal on July 1, 2013. Both the citations and the subsequent appeal are required to be posted at or near the location of the violation for three days or until the violation is corrected. MIOSHA’s response to the District’s appeal on July 1 2013 found the District complied with MIOSHA’s recommendations, and “determined that the items were corrected.” Further, the Complaint filed by Ms. Ely also does not allege any failure to properly post the initial MIOSHA citation or its appeal. The District cannot currently comment on the allegations of falsified reports because of a pending lawsuit. The District takes such allegations extremely seriously, and is thoroughly reviewing its files to ensure to misconduct occurred. "

Kate Wells is a Peabody Award-winning journalist currently covering public health. She was a 2023 Pulitzer Prize finalist for her abortion coverage.
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