A dumpster sits outside old McDonogh 35 Senior High School, where students from Lafayette Academy will attend school this year while their school is cleaned after an asbestos contamination. Contractors preparing the site for the elementary students accidentally disturbed asbestos insulation and now the high school has been cleaned up too. Credit: Marta Jewson / The Lens

Two green construction dumpsters with “DANGER asbestos” warnings taped on them sat in front of the old McDonogh 35 building on Kerlerec Street Thursday morning. They were sealed with plastic and bright orange tape.

The building was supposed to be a safe haven this fall for relocated Lafayette Academy students. That school has been temporarily shuttered after a state inspection found that it may be contaminated with asbestos due to summer construction work.

But this week, Lafayette parents learned that McDonogh 35 also needed a clean-up after contractors — working on the air conditioning system — disturbed asbestos-containing material.

Lafayette parents knew there was asbestos in McDonogh 35, Tuere Jones, who has two kids enrolled at the school, told The Lens in an interview. But the building was safe until construction workers installing pipes above the school’s ceiling tiles accidentally disturbed asbestos-containing insulation, possibly releasing asbestos into the school.

Asbestos is dangerous when it is airborne. The Orleans Parish school district ordered an immediate evacuation of the campus Monday to protect workers.

”To these families it doesn’t matter if it’s active or not. It’s the thought.”—Tuere Jones, Lafayette Academy parent

Jones’ son will be entering sixth grade this fall and her daughter will be starting eighth grade, both at the McDonogh 35 campus as Lafayette sits closed for remediation this school year. The Choice Foundation, a charter school network, runs Lafayette Academy. She said she worries about asbestos being in the schools even if it’s contained.

“To these families it doesn’t matter if it’s active or not,” Jones  said. “It’s the thought.”

In a letter on Tuesday, Orleans Parish school district Chief Operating Officer Eric Seling said, “all air samples collected were well within the air quality range required” by the state for schools.

“However, there were small areas, ranging from 1 square foot or less, of material disturbed that did contain asbestos,” he wrote. “Those areas will be cleaned per regulatory standards by a licensed and accredited abatement firm.”

In letter to parents the next day, Choice’s board president James Swanson said the issue at McDonogh 35 was not as serious as the district initially thought and that clean-up had already been completed.

“We have determined that the Kerlerec Street campus remains the best option available for Lafayette Academy Grades 5-8,” Swanson wrote.

Choice CEO Mickey Landry said he still expected school to start at the McDonogh 35 building later this month.

“We will do more testing by an independent firm, out of an abundance of caution,” he wrote in an email to The Lens.

Orleans Parish school district officials did not immediately return requests for comment on this story. 

”We will do more testing by an independent firm, out of an abundance of caution.”—Mickey Landry, Choice Foundation CEO

WWNO first reported on asbestos contamination at Lafayette’s Carrollton campus July 20. That’s when parents learned the school and its yard could be contaminated after a contractor — doing summer construction work — mishandled materials that contained asbestos.

The Recovery School District, which oversaw Lafayette until July 1, told parents no students had been exposed. So did Orleans Parish schools Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. What neither school district told parents is that asbestos removal had gone on at Lafayette during the 2016-17 school year. WWNO broke that story after examining Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality reports.

One state Department of Environmental Quality report from March 2017 noted an unsealed asbestos containment area.

“Upon arrival, we noted that students were attending classes and roaming the halls outside of the containment area, which was not secured. A student was observed poking his head into the containment area (see photos.),” the report said.

Jones wondered why her kids weren’t relocated sooner.

“Why did you put our kids in danger with people doing construction around our kids, over their heads, under their feet?” she asked.

“The school board was not involved in the renovation process and therefore was not aware of LDEQ’s report,” an Orleans Parish district spokeswoman wrote in a statement to the radio station. Lafayette was part of the state-run RSD at the time. It switched over to local oversight on July 1, along with dozens of other RSD charter schools

”I want to believe that they wouldn’t send our kids into the lion’s den.”—Tuere Jones, Lafayette Academy parent

While she remains rattled by the Choice Foundation’s handling of the situation, Jones said she is pleased with the school district’s response.

“One of their first orders of business was to shut down Lafayette,” she said. “I commend them for that.”

The first day of school is scheduled for Aug. 27, a late start due to the relocation. Choice is holding a parent meeting Thursday night covering back-to-school topics. The meeting will be held at Dunbar school, where Lafayette’s kindergarten through fourth-grade students have been placed this year.

The district will continue to monitor McDonogh 35’s air quality through the construction process, Seling wrote in his July 31 letter.

Jones said she’d like a third-party to test the school for mold and lead, in addition to asbestos, before sending her children there.

“I want to believe that they wouldn’t send our kids into the lion’s den,” Jones said.

Marta Jewson

Marta Jewson covers education in New Orleans for The Lens. She began her reporting career covering charter schools for The Lens and helped found the hyperlocal news site Mid-City Messenger. Jewson returned...