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Northport Middle School to close for rest of school year, superintendent says

Northport Middle School.

Northport Middle School. Credit: Ian J. Stark

Northport Middle School will close for the remainder of the school year beginning Thursday, relocating 660 sixth, seventh and eighth graders following an environmental investigation that discovered potentially dangerous chemical compounds in septic systems and a cesspool outside the building, the district superintendent announced Saturday.

To prepare for the transition, there will be no classes for students on Tuesday and Wednesday as district officials finalize details of the relocation plan for students and staff, including scheduling, transportation and meals, Superintendent Rob Banzer wrote in an email to parents. The school is closed Monday for Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

The finalized relocation plan will be communicated to families before Thursday, Banzer said.

“We realize that this is a substantial undertaking,” he wrote. “However, the Board of Education and I firmly believe it is in the best interest of our students and staff to relocate. It is our goal to minimize the disruption to our students and staff to the extent possible.”

The Middleville Road building has been the subject of complaints for years of a stench that nauseates students, teachers and staff, as well as allegations of long-term health problems, ranging from migraines, nosebleeds, sinus and lung infections to general fatigue.

Earlier this month, PW Grosser Consulting Inc., the district’s environmental firm, said it had detected elevated levels of mercury in a cesspool outside of G-51, an adjacent classroom that has been unoccupied since Dec. 10 due to “moisture-related” odors.

The environmental firm, though, found “no detectable levels of mercury vapor” in the classrooms that abut the cesspool.

The firm tested spaces in the building closest to the contaminated area, including the science prep room, the adjacent hallway and three classrooms: G-51, G-52 and G-53. District officials said at the time that students would not be assigned to the three classrooms and that further testing was underway “out of an abundance of caution.”

PWGC’s latest environmental tests found elevated levels of benzene in soil samples from two different septic systems on the southern and eastern sides of the school that will require remediation, Banzer wrote.

Benzene has been associated with a range of long-term health effects and diseases, including cancer, aplastic anemia and excessive bleeding, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“It is important to note that preliminary air testing indicated no observable detection of VOCs (Volatile Organic Compounds) — which includes benzene — inside the building, or from the soil samples, as well as at the source of the septic tanks,” Banzer wrote to parents. “However, in the best interest of our students and staff and in consideration of ongoing testing and remediation, the building will be closed for the balance of the school year.”

The Suffolk County Department of Health Services did not respond to a request for comment.

The relocation plan calls for eighth-grade students to be moved to Northport High School where most courses will take place in one wing of the building. Science, art and technology classes will take place in another part of the building, requiring a staff escort, officials said.

Seventh-grade students will be relocated to East Northport Middle School while sixth-graders will move to either Norwood Avenue Elementary or Bellerose Avenue Elementary School, Banzer said.

PW Grosser Consulting did not respond to a request for comment.

The effects of mercury exposure can be severe, and symptoms can include emotional changes, such as mood swings, irritability, nervousness and excessive shyness, as well as insomnia, twitching, headaches, and poor performance on tests of mental function, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Last month, parents organized a sickout at the middle school, calling for an independent environmental investigation and requesting that students be removed from the building.

Denise Schwartz of East Northport, whose three children previously attended the middle school, said she was relieved the building would finally be shuttered.

“The good news is that nobody will have to endure that toxic environment for another day,” said Schwartz, who has been raising concerns about the school for more than two years.

State Sen. James Gaughran (D-Northport), who last week asked the State Department of Environmental Conservation to investigate the elevated mercury levels, said Saturday that he would seek emergency funding to help with the relocation process.

“The safety of students, faculty and parents is of the utmost concern,” said Gaughran, whose two children graduated from the middle school.

Mercury was detected in school district buildings in Amityville, Merrick and Miller Place last year, emanating from synthetic flooring in some buildings.

Following the reports, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo signed a bill banning new mercury-containing flooring in schools and setting limits on exposure to the neurotoxin. The bill was sponsored by State Sen. Todd Kaminsky (D-Long Beach) and Assemb. Judy Griffin (D-Rockville Centre), and prohibited schools from installing additional levels of flooring on top of mercury-emitting surfaces that would conceal the old flooring.

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