Tuesday, February 22, 2005

D.C. school and health officials last night apologized to parents whose children attend John Eaton Elementary School n Northwest for allowing a group to spay and neuter more than 500 cats in the school cafeteria last weekend.

“This is a great idea, great people, but the wrong venue,” said Peggy Keller, interim chief of the Bureau of Community Hygiene at the D.C. Department of Health. “I want to deeply apologize for the error in judgment. We’re deeply sorry, deeply concerned, and we apologize.”

Officials said the school will be open for classes today after crews spent two days thoroughly cleaning the cafeteria where the cat surgeries took place on Saturday and Sunday.

“It’s to the point now that there is absolutely no child in jeopardy,” said Thomas Brady, chief business officer for D.C. Public Schools.

Dave Anderson, facilities manager for D.C. Public Schools, said cleaning services initially were estimated at $15,000, but he said the actual cost could be different.

About 100 parents attended last night’s meeting at the school, where city officials spent a couple of hours explaining the cleaning process and trying to answer parents’ questions about the spay and neuter clinic.

During the meeting, many parents, angered that they were not informed about the clinic, interrupted officials who tried to allay their concerns.

“The process has failed us,” said Deborah Evans, whose two daughters attend the school. “We don’t trust anymore the judgment of the people who said this was OK.”

Community activist Terry Lynch, whose two children also attend the school, agreed.

“It’s always been a parent-involved school, so I think people feel a trust was broken because the principal did not share what was going on here,” he said.

Sixth-grader and student body president Tyler Giles, 11, said she didn’t feel safe about going back to school because she was afraid that her asthma would be aggravated.

“It started acting up in there” during last night’s meeting, said Tyler, who attended with her mother, Lisa Bonds.

Willie McElroy, the school’s principal, accepted much of the blame for allowing the national nonprofit Alley Cat Allies to hold such a clinic in his school.

“I’m saddened because some parents think I didn’t consider the safety and welfare of our children, and that is my first order of business. It always has been,” Mr. McElroy said.

Mr. McElroy said he didn’t inform parents about the clinic because organizers did not want the community to be overwhelmed with people who wanted to get their pets spayed or neutered.

“They did not want the community to be overrun with people,” he told parents last night.

Donna Wilcox, executive director of Alley Cat Allies, said that the clinic provided a service to the community but that her organization does not plan to use the school for future clinics.

“We were trying to do a community service by spaying and neutering people’s pets,” she said. “Obviously if this is done again, on this large a scale, we would choose a different venue.”

Earlier yesterday, professional cleaners with ServiceMaster Clean, the independent contractors hired by Alley Cat Allies and the D.C. Health Department, scoured the first floor of the school looking for cat hair and possible air contamination.

“Cleanup has been going on since” Monday, Mr. McElroy said. “We’ve done a lot of climate control, and we are taking out carpet and porous surfaces and wiping everything down.”

Cleaners had to throw out many items that had been exposed to cat hair and dander. Those items included wall artwork, fabric couches, books and a few sweatshirts left behind by children, officials said. Plastic, leather and vinyl items were not discarded because the contaminants could be wiped off.

The crews also sanitized all surfaces and used HEPA charcoal filters to clean the air in the school building at 3301 Lowell St. NW. The school was closed for the day.

The spaying and neutering clinic was held last weekend in the school’s multipurpose room, which also serves as the school cafeteria. About 400 children attend the school and, parents said, many of the students have severe asthma and allergies.

Many parents were concerned that cat hair and dander would not be properly cleaned and cause the children to suffer severe allergic reactions.

The clinic was organized by Alley Cat Allies, a Bethesda-based national nonprofit clearinghouse for information on feral and stray cats, and the D.C. Health Department. The health department recommended the school as a venue for the event, and Mr. McElroy approved the decision.

Mr. McElroy said rabies shots clinics have been held successfully at the school in the past two years. When he was approached by Alley Cat Allies about the latest clinic, he said he thought it would be conducted the same way as the rabies clinics were.

“I envisioned the process to be similar to the rabies clinic. Had I known that it was this big, I would not have done it,” he said.

Mr. McElroy said organizers assured him that the school would be clean and ready to open Tuesday and that no children would have any problems.

“The way this was described, my first thought was that we do have children with allergies,” he said, “but I was assured it would be sterilized.”

Despite the problems caused by this weekend’s clinic, Mr. McElroy said he is willing to work with the health department on future community-service projects.

“I think schools should support community-based functions,” he said. “I will certainly work with the Department of Health, but we will have to be a little more careful.”W

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