Mold Attacks!

If Gilbert school officials had played straight, Mesquite Junior High kids and teachers would've run for their lives.

New Times' investigation found that numerous students, teachers and maintenance workers believe they were made ill by the building. The problem is, in the transient society of a large junior high school, nobody stayed long enough to make any solid connection between their illness and the mold.

Nobody except school old-timer Jeff Corn.

Water and mold damage have been common at Mesquite.
Water and mold damage have been common at Mesquite.
Medical pathologist Dr. William Croft says mycotoxins from mold "can affect every cell in the body."
Medical pathologist Dr. William Croft says mycotoxins from mold "can affect every cell in the body."

Marti Farmer, the longtime Mesquite principal who left the school last year for a new job, didn't return telephone calls from New Times.

Although Farmer was the official with whom school employees dealt, she reported to the school district and presumably the school superintendent, who must have known what was going on at the junior high and sanctioned her actions. Even now, the district's lawyer -- to whom all questions about black mold are referred -- refuses to admit that the mold was a health threat to teachers and children.

Therefore, it becomes difficult to know when Farmer first became aware that her school had a serious problem with black mold.

What is known, though, is that teachers were complaining about black mold outbreaks as far back as the early 1990s.

One of them was Tim Rutt, now a teacher and football coach at Hamilton High School in the Chandler Unified School District.

Rutt taught P.E. and coached basketball and football at Mesquite from 1991 to 1998. Rutt says he was "coughing constantly" through his time at Mesquite. And during that time, he was continually finding mold growing in the gymnasium, locker rooms, P.E. offices and storage rooms.

"It was especially bad at the beginning of the school year," Rutt says. "Every August, you'd come in there and everything would be covered with mold. Every year we'd take the equipment in to Marti [Farmer] and every year she'd just say 'clean it up.' The walls would be covered so they'd come throw up some new drywall. Like clockwork, after a few months, the mold was back. "

In the fall of 1997, Rutt again arrived at school to a pile of mold-covered sports equipment. Again, he says, he took it in to Farmer complaining that something was "seriously wrong with this building."

Same thing. She again told him to clean it up.

But this time, something strange happened, Rutt says. He left the equipment with her and told her it needed to be tested.

"She calls me at night a little later and asks, 'Tim, you didn't touch any of that equipment, did you?' I said, Of course I touched it. I've been touching it for years.' She said, 'Well, stop.'

"She said she was ordering us all new equipment. That led to the obvious question, 'So what were the results of the test?' I can still remember [that she said]: 'I can't tell you.'

"It was crazy. At that point, I knew I had to get out of that environment."

And so, a year later, he did. And once he arrived at Hamilton High School, the wheezing and coughing stopped.

"I know it was that building," he says. "I knew if I taught there long enough, it was really going to destroy my [immune] system."

Ashlie Perro never had breathing problems in elementary school. But once she reached Mesquite Junior High, she spent much of the next two years carrying inhalers.

She was a runner, but running became increasingly difficult for her in junior high. At cross-country meets, she would run with asthma inhalers in each hand. Her coach, Jeff Corn, joked that he would need to get her holsters for her inhalers.

She was known as "Wheezer" by the other kids.

"It was really scary," says Perro, now 23. "It would just be, all of a sudden, I couldn't breathe."

Once, during a race in Coolidge, Perro had such a severe attack that Corn called 911. Perro spent the night in the emergency room, with Corn at her side, trying to get her breathing stabilized.

During her eighth-grade year, Perro tested positive for an allergy to mold. Mold couldn't be the problem, her mother thought, because they had just moved into a new home with no signs of mold or water damage.

"I never associated it with the school," Perro's mother, Corina Noirfalise says. "That seems stupid now, but I just didn't."

And once Ashlie left Mesquite, the breathing problems slowly disappeared. By her sophomore year, Ashlie and her mom had forgotten about those problems back in junior high.

Another student, Steve Granados, remembers collapsing from an apparent asthma attack in a Mesquite classroom, which was later discovered to have heavy water damage. The teacher, who later died of cancer, had to call 911. Granados had forgotten the incident until last year, when he happened to be over repairing Jeff Corn's air conditioning.

"When your lives are so busy, once a problem ends, you forget about it," says Betty Penn, whose son and daughter both went to Mesquite. "You just move on with your lives. That's what happened with us."

Penn's daughter Danielle started at Mesquite in 1997. Soon after, she began having intense asthma attacks at the school.

Through Danielle's seventh- and eighth-grade years, Penn says, she was frequently called to go pick up her daughter at the nurse's office. Penn says that every time she went to the office, there were "seven or eight other kids wheezing just like her.

« Previous Page
Next Page »
My Voice Nation Help
Phoenix Concert Tickets