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Fire officials are displeased with principal; Investigation opened on evacuation of pupils after gas leak at school; 'Things were handled'; Fire officials to investigate principal's school evacuation


Fire officials are unhappy about the way administrators handled an evacuation Tuesday at Crofton Middle School when natural gas spread through the building and have opened an investigation.

Principal Richard Berzinski said he thought "things were handled the way it should have been handled," but investigators have called into question the speed and the manner in which he acted. Children were inside the school when the first fire units arrived.

School officials also discovered that lights on the fire alarms intended to warn deaf pupils of danger did not work.

"Our procedure is we advise them to evacuate anytime there's a hazard in the structure," said Chief John Scholz, spokesman of the county EMS/Fire/Rescue.

"It's my understanding that the principal did not evacuate until we arrived. Folks from the fire marshal's office are speaking to the principal to find out the circumstances.

"We don't know the process behind what the principal was thinking."

Eighty pupils complained to the school nurse about dizziness and nausea related to fumes in the building.

A pupil and a teacher who complained were treated at Anne Arundel Medical Center after school and released, the chief said.

Ken Nichols, director of instruction for the county schools, said someone reported a strange odor near the gymnasium shortly before 10:30 a.m.

Before Berzinski went to check it out, he asked secretaries and assistants to call the fire department, Baltimore Gas and Electric Co., the company that handles the school's security monitoring system to let them know that fire alarms would be pulled, and an environmental specialist.

When the principal returned from the gym, he decided to clear the 964-pupil school, but he announced the evacuation over the public address system instead of pulling the fire alarm. An assistant principal who called 911 was told by emergency dispatchers to evacuate the building.

When the fire units arrived, pupils were inside.

Berzinski used the public address system, Nichols said, because the alarms don't work in the portable classrooms. He also wanted pupils to gather up their coats because he thought they might be outside a long time, Nichols said.

Six minutes elapsed from the time the assistant principal spoke with dispatchers to the evacuation, Nichols said.

"My read on it is the fire department has some real concerns about the process and procedure," he said. "The fire department does not think we evacuated quickly enough. Then I guess there was some concern that they did not pull the fire alarm."

Jane Doyle, a spokeswoman for county schools, said principals are required to follow instructions from the fire department about evacuation. Standard operating procedure does not require school officials specifically to use the fire alarm system.

Two years ago, the school board and emergency officials drafted new emergency response procedures after the principal of Arundel Senior High School failed to evacuate students during a bomb scare when a Molotov cocktail was found smoldering in a bathroom. Gov. Parris N. Glendening was visiting the school at the time.

Until Tuesday, nothing further had happened to cause emergency officials to question school procedures again.

Fire officials say they found gas leaking from a water heater and two rooftop heating units at the middle school.

Pupils were allowed back in the building about noon, but were evacuated again less than an hour later when the odor became strong again, according to Scholz. That time, Berzinski used the fire alarm.

Pupils were allowed back inside to gather their belongings about 2 p.m. but were then ushered outside to wait for buses, Scholz said. They were sent home with a letter explaining two evacuations had occurred at the school because of an unidentified odor.

Nichols said school officials called the parents of pupils who complained of sickness and parents of classmates of the girl taken to the hospital.

Crofton Middle School has had a long a history of problems with its ventilation system because a contractor installed used parts when the building was built, Nichols said.

The county school board replaced all the rooftop units, and no problems have occurred in about four years, he said.

Nichols said it was unusual to have three malfunctions in the ventilation system at once, but most repairs were completed that evening, and pupils were back in the school yesterday.

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