Suspicion grows in a battle over mold

D91 employee starts a controversy, district questions motivation

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By Nona Tepper

A Forest Park District 91 employee emailed school parents on June 10, alleging that the district failed to properly investigate what he suspects is a growing mold and air quality crisis at Field-Stevenson Intermediate Elementary School and Forest Park Middle School (FPMS). Superintendent Louis Cavallo said the schools' air quality and mold levels have all been professionally tested and were found in compliance with federal standards. He called the employee's mold manifesto, and the method of communication, "dangerous and absolutely not true."  

"There is no more mold in the schools than there is outside," Cavallo said. "You breathe more mold outside than you do inside the building. So that's to say there is literally mold everywhere; you're breathing it in right now.

"I'm not going to speak to his motivations or what he believes he's entitled to. Everything was under control. It's not his job to be running tests or ordering them."

Daniel Wilson, of Schaumburg, is employed as a D91 health service coordinator until June 20. He accessed parents' emails and sent "Forest Park Middle School: The Battle of Mold and Leaking Pipe," a 41-page document that outlines his attempts to get D91 to replace a pipe and perform a mold inspection, through a district health and emergency contact database. He said if he were a parent he would want to know about hazardous mold possibly growing in the schools, and said emailing parents did not constitute "misuse of private information, [because] this is all health-related." 

"I've had several parents who were very happy that I let them know and were concerned and want to look into this," Wilson said. "I felt it was my obligation to anyone who comes into the building; their health and safety is my responsibility. That's why I did everything possible; that's why I kept pushing." 

Over the past year, Wilson said he has noticed more students and staff who have respiratory issues than in the past. Wilson, who contracted exercise-induced asthma while serving in the military in Iraq, said he was not concerned about his own medical issues but rather that of staff and students. 

"If it really is mold, it could spread, so it needs to be taken care of as soon as possible. We should be preventing it," he said. 

 After Wilson complained about the conditions, he said he heard varying stories from school administration — first that the facilities were fine, then that a leaking pipe would be replaced. First that there was no mold just dirt, then that of course there was mold but that it was safe. He said that "multiple" Field-Stevenson and FPMS staff members are also concerned about the building's air quality and presence of mold but "they are too afraid to lose their jobs to fight this." 

Cavallo said the D91 Board of Education will vote on whether to terminate Wilson's contract at the next regular meeting on June 13. He said the administration has recommended to the board that Wilson's contract not be renewed. How he will prevent Wilson from continuing to email parents allegations of an unsafe school environment is a "personnel issue," he said.  

"I feel tension right now to do the right thing, everything is so 'hush, hush.' I just feel like this should be public knowledge," said Wilson, who has been debating leaving the state "for a little while," and plans to head to the South next year to escape Forest Park's cold winters. He said he plans to look for another job as a health coordinator at a school, and dreams of eventually pursuing his doctorate or nurse practitioner's degree. Wilson said he has no regrets about leaving D91. 

"It was worth it because I'm just one of those people who needs to sleep at night," he said. 

Mold mayhem

Wilson said he received his registered nursing degree from John Tyler Community College in Virginia in 2014 and has since worked in emergency rooms and in Chicago Public Schools. Three years ago, he made his way to D91. Cavallo said he was initially hired on through a contractual agency and then hired on full-time two years ago. When he was hired, Wilson was still pursuing a certificate through the state, Cavallo said. As a health service coordinator, he worked at every school, rotating throughout the week.

Wilson said he felt welcome in the schools "99 percent" of the time but didn't feel Cavallo and other district administrators' presence in the buildings. 

"To be honest, when I saw them, it was typically bad news," he said. Last school year, he said he tried to implement a fragrance-free policy at the schools. When he brought it up, he said Cavallo told him it would have to go through the board. 

"He was very dismissive, which is how I feel he was with this mold and leaky pipe issue," Wilson said. 

He first alerted the district to a suspected mold problem at Field-Stevenson and FPMS on March 15, according to interviews and the email document he sent to parents. That day, he emailed Cavallo and Bob Laudadio, D91's superintendent of buildings and grounds, complaining of a leaking pipe and dark ceiling tiles that appeared to contain mold.

He said building administration had brought the discoloration and smell up multiple times before but "nothing has been done." About an hour later, Laudadio responded to the email, saying the smell and discolored tiles had all been investigated and that the school environment was safe. 

"Frankly speaking, you may be stepping way out of your lane to inspect areas of a school building when you are not a licensed plumber, certified building engineer, or an air quality specialist," Laudadio wrote back. He did not immediately respond to an interview request.

Wilson said he was "disheartened" by Laudadio's response and felt the district didn't take his complaints seriously, writing that FPMS' discolored tiles and odor were unlike anything else he'd experienced in his career. He also noticed that some staff members struggled with asthma and allergies at work, but when they returned home, their symptoms were resolved. Five minutes after receiving Laudadio's email, Wilson sent him a link from the National Association of School Nurses advocacy section, which states school nurses must prevent environmental hazards.

Cavallo said Wilson's job was to treat student injuries, administer medicine and manage medical files — not to order building inspections. 

"You do what your employer asks you to do via your job description; that's for any employee in any organization anywhere," Cavallo said.  

Shortly after he sent the email, Wilson said Laudadio showed up, "looked him dead in the eye" and started yelling that the discoloration was dirt, there was no issue with a leaky pipe, and that inspectors had already come through and everything was fine. He said Laudadio later came to him and apologized, saying he was upset that Wilson had included Cavallo on the email exchange, since he is "the highest in the district," and that he was unsure what was causing the smell but was working on it. 

About two weeks later, Wilson followed up with Joe Pisano, principal of FPMS, asking if there were any updates. Pisano replied that the issues would be fixed over spring break. Pisano did not immediately respond to an interview request.

When Wilson returned from spring break on April 29, he said he asked the principals if they knew if anything had been fixed. They replied that they were "unaware of any changes or correction." Wilson said he didn't see any change in the pipe or tiles, and that the smell was still present. He reached out to the village of Forest Park, looking for experts to perform an in-person inspection. Steve Glinke, director of the Department of Public Health and Safety, confirmed that he received Wilson's call, told him that school operations were outside of the village's purview, and referred him to the West 40 regional office of education.

On May 2, Wilson said he called and emailed Steve Bogren, who works in the health department at West 40. He said he emailed pictures of the mold and pipes to Bogren, who responded by saying, "If you have a strong feeling and proof of an unsafe situation, then it's not [taking it] too far." The Review was unable to confirm whether Bogren was ever contacted.  

"All I had was their word," Wilson said. "I need something that is tangible because if I'm just going to drop it, I need to make sure. If I was to leave the district and someone gets hurt or something I don't want it coming back on me." 

Bogren later replied that he had spoken to Cavallo and that the leaky pipe would be replaced over the summer.

Wilson said he was sad to learn that Bogren would not be coming out to perform an in-person inspection. On the way home from work, he stopped at Home Depot and purchased three mold tests. The next week, he tested the principal's office, nurse's office and a room on the FPMS side. All reported that mold was present. At this point, he presented his findings to Cavallo.

"It wasn't pretty," Wilson wrote. "I was told that I wasted my money because they were aware that all five schools have mold. All schools have mold. That there is no issue. Then he proceeded to raise his voice to me saying how he told me to let it go and that I was being insubordinate."

By the end of the conversation, Cavallo told him that he could only keep his job if he promised not to reach out to other agencies about the mold problem. Wilson responded by calling his lawyer, the Illinois State Board of Education, Department of Health and West 40 again. In the meantime, he also sent the mold samples he found to a lab to be tested. The lab, operated by Mold Armor, found two types of mold in the nurse's office: apergillus, a mold species commonly present in air that can cause asthma, and chaetomium, a mold species commonly found on water-damaged buildings. He submitted Freedom of Information Act requests to the district, asking for copies of any inspections performed. He said he never received any. After West 40 called Cavallo again, Wilson said he was officially out of a job when his contract ended. 

"I won't deny that I was really upset — not because he was claiming that there was mold," Cavallo said. "When somebody does something like that, first, as you do with anyone, you communicate this is now what the expectation is, here is the corrective action, but when things go beyond that, then of course people get upset. You aren't doing what you're asked to do." 

Wilson said he doesn't view his actions as insubordinate — rather, he said he thinks he went "above and beyond" as an exemplary employee. He contacted the state's Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Department of Health, and the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). The latter sent the district a letter on June 5 requiring that the district investigate mold, a cracked pipe and the school's air quality. The next day, the district submitted a report to the federal agency that was conducted by ECS Midwest, which found no microbial growth; the school's air quality met federal standards; and that airborne fungal spores posed no risk to students and staff. 

"My opinion is that, because there are no regulations for acceptable amounts of mold in a school setting, any inspection they do will pass regulation because there are no regulations. They're playing off the fact that there are no guidelines," Wilson said.  

He believes summer programs scheduled inside the schools should be moved as a precautionary measure, and parents should be invited into the buildings to inspect themselves. 

"If I play devil's advocate, if I am a disgruntled employee doing this out of angst for the district, take me out of it. Go take a look for yourself," Wilson said. "All I did was present my findings. I want them to investigate themselves."  

The district publicly posted the same test results on the district website on June 10. Cavallo said its findings prove the school environment is safe and that there are federal regulations surrounding how much mold in schools is acceptable. He said he believes Laudadio asked for the inspection to be performed and "when concerns are brought up anywhere around mold, it's always best to have it tested just to put people's minds at ease." Cavallo said no data had ever been communicated to him that student and staff were experiencing greater levels of asthma and allergies.

"My biggest regret of all this is that he alarmed so many parents today," Cavallo said. "That was uncalled for and unnecessary. I don't want parents to feel kids are in danger. … [Wilson] caused a lot of unnecessary alarm; it was very unfortunate. I'm very sorry to everyone that happened to. I definitely want to convey my apologies to everyone that they had to deal with all this."

Reader Comments

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Jan Stephens  

Posted: June 11th, 2019 10:10 PM

I'm on the Mr. Wilson's side. Mold outside is not the same as mold that grows inside from water leakage. In no way did he unnecessarily alarm parents. This is a very important issue and I'm very disheartened by the responses from school officials. Wilson most definitely did the right thing and I'm sorry his position is ending. I know he'll go on to a more receptive and appreciative community.

Emma-Leigh LeBlanc  

Posted: June 11th, 2019 8:43 PM

This whole situation stinks. Handled very unprofessionally on many levels.

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