By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
"I did say something to the nurse because they were all in there with these croupy coughs," she says. "It was just weird. I've never seen another nurse's office that crowded. But [school officials] said they were just normal colds.
"I guess," she says with a wry smile, "it was always the cold season there or something."
Then Danielle graduated. Then Danielle stopped needing inhalers.
Then Dustin Penn went to Mesquite. Then he suddenly needed an inhaler.
Penn would have breathing attacks that would cause him to miss many days of school at a time. Doctors put him on cortisol steroids that made him bloat.
"He was miserable," Penn says.
Then he left Mesquite. Then he got better.
"You'd think we all would have thought something [was going on]," Penn says. "But you're so busy with your lives. You just never put two and two together."
Mesquite Junior High was run down when Ninfa Gonzales was a student there back in 1991.
By the time she started working at the school as a custodian 10 years later, "it was a disaster," she says.
Gonzales sees the degraded condition of Mesquite in racial colors.
Mesquite serves the old central core of Gilbert, where the majority of the booming city's poorer Hispanics live. As Gilbert has grown, she says, "all the money has gone out to build new schools for the new wealthier suburbanites.
"It was considered the old dump for Hispanic kids back when I went there," she says. "The district just has never given it much attention."
In 1998, after years of mold caking the school's locker rooms, school officials conducted the first "mold remediation."
An industrial hygiene survey by Hutzel and Associates found extremely elevated levels of fungal growth in the gym's locker and equipment rooms. One fresh-air vent showed fungi counts 1,000 times higher than a typical clean wall in the building, while one racquetball racket had a count more than 10,000 times higher than a clean surface.
In November of that year, a company cleaned the locker room and storage room, tested for fungi and, finding none, reported that the problem was solved.
Rutt, then the P.E. Department head, was told that any mold problems the school might have had were gone.
Which was a sick joke.
Within months, the mold was back.
And even if it had been eradicated, research on toxic mold's long-term effects suggests it might have already done damage to the immune systems of teachers and students.
School officials never tested teachers or students for toxins in their bodies. Never have. Indeed, most were never told there was even a problem.
In 2001, Gonzales transferred from her job at Highland High School to take a custodial position at Mesquite Junior High. The school was closer to her home.
"That was a huge mistake," she says. "Highland was a good school."
At Mesquite, she says, she learned how the school's administration dealt with what she called "an epidemic" of toxic mold.
"I'd see mold growing on pipes or whatever, I'd put in a work order and somebody would come wipe the pipe off and tape it," she says. "I started going to [Principal Farmer] saying, 'We've got to do something.' And she made it real clear: Gilbert isn't going to do anything about this school. She just said, 'Clean it up as best you can.'"
Gonzales says she knew it was toxic black mold because the district had given custodians seminars in how to identify it.
"It was sad. We were trained to identify problems and then told to ignore them."
Both summers she worked at the school, she and the other custodians were asked to go into the buildings and clean them before the teachers and students got there.
"In some places, mold covered the walls and the floors; it was amazing," she says. "One of the sinks was just full of it. We literally took pressure washers to some of the areas. That was the only thing that would work."
The sewer would back up often in the buildings, she says. She would try to suck it up with a shop vacuum, then disinfect. Time and time again, it would happen.
She began to have health problems, she says. A nephew who went to school at that time had respiratory problems.
During the 2002 school year, she says, she would ask Farmer to contact district officials to plead with them that something had to be done to fix the school.
"If you saw that place day in and day out, it made you crazy knowing that teachers and students were in there," Gonzales says. "But the principal was more upset that I kept making an issue out of it.
"By the end of that second year, I just had to get out of there," she says. "It was just too much."
A year later, school administrators and district officials apparently decided it was finally time to attempt to clean up the gymnasium again.
Again, though, they didn't tell teachers what they were doing.
For years, in the entry of the gymnasium, water had been seeping through the ceiling, creating two large fetid puddles at the gym's entrance.