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SENSITIVITY STRAINING

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Gray told school staffers that some chemically sensitive kids develop temporary learning disabilities after being exposed to certain chemicals.

The Eagle Ridge staff, however, did not think the boys had learning disabilities or behavior problems, and they didn't think the boys were terribly sick, Principal Karen Gasket testified in a hearing last month on the dispute.

But for reasons Gasket has yet to adequately explain, in August 1994 she acquiesced to Debbie's demand that the boys be deemed disabled under the terms of Section 504 of the federal Rehabilitation Act of 1973.

Gasket later testified that she misunderstood the 1973 law. She thought the law was meant to prevent disabilities, not accommodate them.

"I made a mistake," Gasket later said. " . . . I know that Mrs. McQueen had frequently told me that the boys were chemically sensitive, and I took her word for it, that that meant there was a medical diagnosis. I never questioned it. But when we looked for the medical records, and we saw no symptoms, there was some confusion about whether [a child] perceived by the parents as chemically sensitive applied to [Section] 504. So again, because we wanted to err on the side of caution rather than make a mistake that could jeopardize the boys . . . I did not want to take a chance."
Gasket refused comment to New Times, citing confidentiality laws.
The McQueens' case is the first, and only, in Arizona schools that cites chemical sensitivity as a disability, says Linda Howard-Kurent, an official with the section of the Office of Civil Rights that monitors the Department of Education.

Federal education officials could not find similar cases in other states.
The 1973 law says children with disabilities must have special school "accommodation plans" that enable them to learn unimpaired by their disability.

The boys' accommodation plans, which Debbie and Gray helped design, protected Jason and Michael by isolating them from such things as carpet glue, new construction, termite pesticide, room deodorizers, perfumes and even scented felt-tip markers. The school also agreed to supply sophisticated air purifiers for Michael's classroom. Teachers were instructed to make sure the boys followed special routes mapped out by the McQueens--routes that would ensure minimal exposure to toxins.

The school nurse, located in a newly carpeted, freshly painted building, was ordered not to allow Jason and Michael in the infirmary, but instead to go to the boys' classrooms should they get sick.

Pesticides were almost not an issue.
The school had stopped spraying pesticides, at Debbie's insistence, in 1991. The only pesticide applications at Eagle Ridge involved several termiticide applications in the early spring of this year, to the foundation of a new building. School officials notified parents before they applied the termiticide, called Torpedo.

The pesticide was applied after school hours, immediately covered with plastic and then buried in concrete a few hours later, says Hal Buckley, who is in charge of the school grounds.

Despite the school's caution, Debbie claimed the termiticide made the boys ill. School officials say maybe the kids just had a touch of flu; it was going around at the time.

As the school year progressed, Debbie seemed to grow more dissatisfied with the way the school was complying with the accommodation plans. For months, she had kept in touch with the Office of Civil Rights, alleging that the district had discriminated against her children because they had a disability.

In March 1995, shortly after the termiticide applications and at the very time Debbie's relationship with the teachers and Gasket had become brittle and hostile (she communicated with Gasket via certified mail by that time), a group of teachers and administrators led by Gasket discontinued the accommodation plans.

The team concluded that the McQueen boys' chemical sensitivities--if they existed--did not impair their ability to learn. Actually, the teachers said, the boys showed no more signs of illness than the healthy kids.

In short, the kids weren't really disabled after all, the team decided.
According to the 1973 law, school districts do not have to pay for medical tests to prove children have disabilities.

Thus the teachers would no longer be required to follow the burdensome accommodation plans. If the boys subsequently showed signs of chemical-related illness, Gasket later testified, the plans would have been reinstated.

"It was political," Debbie says of the team's decision to terminate the plans. Of course the boys weren't showing signs of illness, she insists--they were being protected from chemicals by their accommodation plans.

The school staff, she says, just wanted to get rid of her and her kids.
They did. Debbie immediately pulled her sons out of school after the discontinuation of the plans in March 1995.

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Terry Greene