Now it's the bills that stink
By TOM MARSHALL
Published March 3, 2007
SPRING HILL - The smell wafting through the school fell somewhere between bleach and ammonia on the nausea scale, students said.
It made some of them vomit. Others complained of breathing problems and headaches.
Administrators at the Challenger K-8 School of Science and Mathematics erred on the side of caution on Jan. 26, evacuating all 1,475 students and calling for help. Hazardous materials crews from both Hernando and Pasco counties responded and took 36 children to hospitals.
More than a month later, officials say they still don't know what caused the mystery smell. And now parents are getting the medical bills.
"I don't think any of the parents should pay," said parent Michael Eberts, who has received about $1,400 in ambulance and emergency room bills so far. "I feel the school is responsible for my kid from the time they step off the bus to the time they get home."
Hernando County school officials say they can't be held liable for a smell of unknown origin, and their insurance administrator has refused to pay claims on that basis.
"You don't just assume liability off the bat," said Deborah Bruggink, the district's finance director. "If they fell and broke their arm, that was an accident. You can't look to us to get your arm fixed."
Across Florida, there's widespread confusion over just how much liability school districts are responsible for assuming.
It might be time for legislators to craft a solution, said Bill Montford, a member of the state Insurance Reform Committee and chief executive officer of the Florida Association of District School Superintendents.
"At what point do you assume that expense?" he asked, "and at what point does that child's own personal health insurance pick it up? It's a philosophical question, and it might be something the state should address."
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There are lots of rumors about what caused the smell at Challenger, a magnet school that draws a relatively affluent population.
Spilled hand sanitizer, cleaning fluids or perhaps an ammonia capsule have all been suggested as possible culprits, but school and emergency officials say they might never know what caused the stink.
"My child and another vomited from the odor," said parent Carol Pickersgill. "They sent them down to the clinic. I think that's when the chaos started."
Administrators cleared the building about 1:30 p.m. and set up a treatment area outside for affected students. Pickersgill's daughter had an asthma attack and low blood-oxygen levels and was transported to Oak Hill Hospital.
"She was treated very well. She was not washed down with a hose in a tent," Pickersgill said. "Our hospital bill was $400."
But Michael Eberts said his daughter went through a full decontamination tent at Brooksville Regional Hospital, getting "stripped down to her underwear and scrubbed with Dawn dish washing liquid and a car brush." He said he was told by a billing representative that medical tests she received might cost $8,000 or more, a cost he hopes insurance will cover.
Parent Tara Carollo said she and her husband, an off-duty paramedic, told school officials that they wanted to evaluate their daughter rather than send her to an emergency room. Then she got a phone call.
"The guidance counselor told me, 'We are aware you don't want her transported, but as a precaution, the principal wanted her transported regardless,' " Carollo said. "My bill was over $1,000, just for the hospital. I'm just paying a co-pay because I have insurance. But I don't think any of us should be responsible for those bills."
It may be more of a struggle for Heidi Johnson's family, which is self-employed. She is facing a hospital bill of $797 for her daughter, who experienced a headache.
"It will have to be some kind of payment schedule," Johnson said. "When they made that decision to send them to the hospital, did they not take the liability in their hands?"
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Challenger may have gotten off easy.
In 1998, a Tennessee high school was evacuated twice in five days when students and staff members smelled fumes. About 170 people went to hospitals.
State and federal officials never found the source of the smell, and in 2000 a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine attributed the panic to "mass psychogenic illness" - an epidemic of hysteria.
"It smelled like more of a petroleum odor to me, but different people described it in different ways," said Jerry Hale, superintendent of Warren County schools. "There was something there. At least, we think there was."
Real or imagined, Hale said, his school board paid the bills, and the county gave them a discount on ambulance trips.
Things may be headed in that direction in Hernando. One fire department that responded to the scene, Spring Hill Fire Rescue, has canceled its ambulance bills.
And a School Board member said he hopes for a similar attitude from his colleagues when the issue of who should pay comes before the board next week.
"Some would say if you do that you're admitting liability," said Jim Malcolm. "But I don't think that's an unreasonable expense."
Tom Marshall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (352) 848-1431.
Across the state, school districts are wondering how much liability they must assume in cases such as the Hernando County mystery smell. Some believe it may be time for state legislators to step in.