Second carbon monoxide leak detected in a week at Dickey Hill school

A leak of potentially deadly carbon monoxide gas led officials to shut down a Southwest Baltimore school Tuesday for the second time in a week, prompting a call from elected officials for a major infusion of state funding to upgrade dilapidated school buildings.

Six students complained of illness and 40 other people were possibly exposed to carbon monoxide Tuesday morning at Dickey Hill Elementary/Middle School, Baltimore fire officials said. A child who complained of abdominal pain was taken to Sinai Hospital, but his condition was not life-threatening, said Chief Kevin Cartwright, a Fire Department spokesman.

Five adults and a child were briefly hospitalized Feb. 8 after a carbon monoxide leak at the school.

State Sen. Bill Ferguson, a former Baltimore teacher, said the leaks underscore a need for greater state spending on school facilities citywide, though tight finances make that unlikely soon.

"This is an example of the continued neglect of our school facilities because of inadequate funding," said Ferguson, a South Baltimore Democrat. "It comes down to money. Do we have 21st-century buildings that are safe for our kids?"

Keith Scroggins, chief operating officer for the city schools, said the source of Tuesday's leak was a convection and steam oven used to prepare food. Officials believe it might be defective and say students will not be served hot food until the oven has been checked.

The same model oven is used in 35 city schools; each will be evaluated. At the Fire Department's recommendation, school officials will examine the exhaust hood to ensure that it is strong enough to vent carbon monoxide.

The school, in the Wakefield neighborhood, was the site of another carbon monoxide leak a week ago. Scroggins said that leak was caused by a malfunctioning steam table used to heat food in the cafeteria kitchen. The table has been repaired, he said.

School officials say they will evaluate all cafeteria equipment at Dickey Hill, which will reopen Wednesday, to ensure it is functioning properly.

"In four years, we have never had an incident like this happen in the same school in the same week," Scroggins said.

Carbon monoxide is an odorless, colorless gas. But Cartwright said an odor is sometimes associated with leaks because of other fuels involved, such as natural gas. At Dickey Hill, the principal does a walk-through every morning, and the two recent carbon monoxide evacuations have been a result of the principal smelling an odor.

Scroggins said city schools do not have carbon monoxide detectors because it would be expensive to install them in all buildings. The city is not alone in that.

Anne Arundel County public schools do not have such detectors, according to a spokesman. And facilities staff with the Baltimore County system said they weren't aware of any detectors in its schools, though heating systems may be equipped with devices to guard against unsafe carbon monoxide levels.

While 24 states, including Maryland, have laws requiring carbon monoxide detectors in certain residential buildings, no state requires them in schools, according to a summary compiled by the National Conference of State Legislatures. Texas mandates such detectors in day care centers.

Several states require that detectors be placed near bedrooms. Carbon monoxide exposure causes nausea, but someone who is sleeping might not regain consciousness. More than 400 people a year die from carbon monoxide poisoning nationwide, the federal government says.

In Connecticut, lawmakers considered a bill Tuesday to require carbon monoxide detectors in schools. The legislation was prompted by a leak early last month at an elementary school in Waterbury that sent 31 students and a teacher to local hospitals, news reports said.

After the incident, the Waterbury school district installed temporary carbon monoxide detectors in the school, according to the Hartford Courant. The district also announced plans to install a more elaborate detection system in all its buildings.

In Putney, Vt., several students and a school employee were taken to the hospital last month after a carbon monoxide leak at the Putney Central School, according to news accounts. The school had carbon monoxide detectors but not in the part of the school where the leak occurred, and temporary detectors were installed afterward.

Last week, a beauty school in Bangor, Maine, experienced its second carbon monoxide leak in three months, and a faulty heating unit was blamed, the Bangor Daily News reported. A detector at the Empire Beauty School went off and people noticed a strong odor.

The two recent leaks in Baltimore caught the attention of lawmakers in Annapolis.

Del. Samuel I. Rosenberg, a Baltimore Democrat, said: "It makes the case for a major increase in the dollars spent to renovate the aging infrastructure of the city schools."

Gov. Martin O'Malley has included $250 million for school construction in his capital budget for next year. That money will be spread across the state. Ferguson, a freshman senator, believes the city's needs are much greater.

Last summer, the American Civil Liberties Union released a report that estimated that the city's schools need $2.8 billion in new construction investment. The report contended that the state should dedicate more money to poorer areas such as Baltimore and Prince George's County.

"Baltimore schools need constant repairs and Band-Aids to keep systems running," Bebe Verdery, the education reform director for the ACLU of Maryland, said Tuesday. "The children can't wait any longer."

She said "as a first step" the city could borrow up to $400 million more to renovate school buildings without jeopardizing its bond rating. She said the city and state need to "develop a real financing plan."

Some in the city want the school board to have greater flexibility to borrow. Sen. Nathaniel J. McFadden, a Baltimore Democrat, has introduced legislation to allow the Baltimore school board to borrow an added $150 million and spread payments over 30 years instead of 15.

With the state already hitting its borrowing ceiling, it is unlikely that more money for schools will flow from Annapolis.

Baltimore Sun reporter Yeganeh June Torbati contributed to this article.