The Other 60 Percent

Radon levels untested in some schools

As many as half the schools in Colorado may be out of compliance with a 1991 state law that required them to test radon levels in their buildings and keep documentation of those tests on file.

Radon Gas SignA survey of each of the state’s 2,274 K-12 schools – sent out by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment in 2009 and still not completed by all of them – found that most schools likely did the testing, and that most of those who found elevated levels of the cancer-causing gas did take steps to fix the problem.

But many did not. More than 300 acknowledge they never completed the testing. And many others lack the documentation to prove they did – nor can they show whether any remediation steps they took were adequate at the time and remain adequate today.

Key points
  • More than 300 Colorado schools acknowledge they never tested for radon, as required by a 1991 state law.
  • Many other schools lack the documentation to prove they completed the testing, also required by law.
  • No law requires retesting or reporting to the state on mitigation so state health officials don’t know how worried they should be.
  • The state’s Radiation Advisory Committee is mulling whether to ask lawmakers to put some teeth into the law.

Since there’s no law that requires schools to ever retest for radon levels, no law that requires them to do anything if they find radon problems and no law that requires them to report their findings or their mitigation efforts to the state, state health officials still don’t know whether they should be worried about this or not.

The state’s Radiation Advisory Committee, which received the preliminary survey results in mid-February, now must decide if the problem is potentially grave enough to warrant asking the legislature to put some teeth into the 20-year-old law.

In the meantime, no one is really monitoring what schools are doing in regards to radon, and the state lacks the resources to adequately analyze the data it does have. The report presented to the RAC was the work of a graduate student working on his master’s thesis.

“I am the radon program, and I have very limited time,” said Chrys Kelley, radon coordinator for the CDPHE’s Hazardous Materials Waste Management Division.

“It’s a project that’s bigger than me. I’ve got a million things to do, and this survey has been eating up 20 percent of my time for two years now. Who will look at it, and should there be regulatory changes? Those are questions beyond my authority. Technically, this is a school inspection issue, not a hazardous materials issue. I don’t have any authority over schools.”

Radon problem especially acute in Colorado

Radon is a colorless, odorless, tasteless, naturally-occurring radioactive gas. It is the second-leading cause of lung cancer in the United States. While it is found in all 50 states, it is especially problematic in Colorado, where 53 of 64 counties report high levels of the gas.

It’s not an immediate threat to life, the way carbon monoxide is, but long-term exposure is blamed for 21,000 lung cancer deaths each year, including 500 in Colorado. State health officials estimate that fully half of the homes in Colorado have radon levels in excess of the level the Environmental Protection Agency considers unsafe.

Radon map of Colorado
Fifty-three of Colorado's 64 counties - designated on the map in red - are radon hot spots, with likely potential for as least some rooms in buildings to have elevated radon levels.

In response to studies done in the 1980s, Colorado became one of just eight states in the nation to require radon testing in schools. The law, passed in 1990, gave schools until March 1991 to test radon levels. The law also requires newly-built schools to complete radon testing within 19 months of opening, and to alert the state after any major remodeling to determine if more tests needed to be done. The results of the tests are to be kept on file at each school and available for review.

Nearly 20 years later, the Radiation Advisory Committee – a group appointed by the governor to assess radiation-related issues in Colorado – asked Kelley to survey the schools to verify they were still in compliance with the law.

By September 2010, 1,855 of the schools – 81.6 percent – had responded, and their answers became the basis for the report delivered to the RAC. Since then, another 20 schools have responded, Kelley said. The survey was voluntary.

Most of the respondents – 1,533 – had tested as required. But 306 had not, and 16 didn’t answer the question. Most of the 306 laggards indicated that they would be doing the testing at some point. Kelley hopes that these schools will supply her with the test results once they’re completed, but they’re under no obligation to do so.

Thirty percent of schools found problems

Among schools who have done the radon tests, 30 percent – 468 schools – reported finding at least one room in the school with elevated radon levels. Those rooms had readings surpassing the level at which the EPA suggests retesting over a ninth-month period. If the long-term test continues to show high levels, the EPA says, remediation is needed. But Colorado law does not require retesting or remediation.

image of student radon poster
Olivia Brett, a Fort Collins middle school students, won top honors in the state health department

Of those 468 schools, only 194 – 41 percent – reported taking any remediation steps in the rooms that had elevated radon levels. It’s unclear why the others did not. It’s possible that they retested the problematic rooms, and if the long-term results did not signify a continuing issue, felt no remediation was necessary.

Unfortunately, the state doesn’t know just what happened in those other 222 schools. Nor does it know what happened in the 241 schools that say they tested but don’t have the results on file. Nor in the 111 schools who didn’t answer the question about whether their test results were on file. Nor in the 306 schools who didn’t complete the survey at all.

“To me, that is something we cannot ignore,” said Jim Burkhart, chairman of the Department of Physics and Energy Science at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs and a member of the RAC.

“My contention has been all along that the problem isn’t that schools are bad, but that the original legislation simply called for a snapshot: Let’s see what’s going on and see if we have a great enough problem to address. But now I think it’s time that the Colorado legislation be changed to have those other two components, follow-up testing and mitigation.”

Kelley says she knows that many schools are retesting, some because they can’t find the 20-year-old paperwork and others because they’re just not comfortable with 20-year-old data.

“I don’t know what every school is thinking,” she said. “I’ve never talked to individual schools unless they’ve called and asked me for assistance. I would really like to see all the schools given the opportunity to explain why they said what they said. A lot of schools are re-evaluating old tests now.”

She wishes she had the time to delve more deeply into the survey data to determine if the schools who never did the tests or didn’t follow through with remediation are in poorer school districts or in areas where radon is not as big a problem. She also wishes she knew why some schools only report testing one room, which doesn’t make for a valid sample, since radon can be highly concentrated in one part of a building and completely absent in another part.

Denver: Disturbing findings in the past

A year ago, Channel 7 reporter Tony Kovaleski obtained some preliminary results of the RAC survey and reported some disturbing findings, particularly in Denver. At that time, Denver Public Schools had failed to test more than a dozen new schools built after 1991, had failed to remediate high radon levels found in 76 older schools, and was able to find mitigation records for only one district building, a caretaker’s house at Balarat Outdoor Education Center.

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Since then, DPS has either re-tested each of the district’s 160 buildings or is in the process of doing so, said Joni Rix, the district’s environmental project manager.

“We did the ones that hadn’t been tested at all first,” she said. “We’re in the midst of doing long-term testing in 27 schools who had initial results over (EPA recommended levels) to find out where they are. And we have eight schools that I will put some remediation in this summer. So it’s a moving target. I’d say overall, maybe 10 to 15 percent of the rooms tested – and that’s in the thousands – will need some kind of remediation.”

The cost of testing in DPS has run over $100,000, Rix said. The cost to remediate a room averages $1,500 to $2,500. The district has applied for a BEST grant to help with mitigation efforts at some schools. But even if DPS fails to get the state assistance, the mitigation will proceed: “If we had to do tons of rooms, that would be a problem,” she said. She expects the total process to take two to three more years to complete.

Remediation needn’t be costly or complicated, experts say. It can be as simple as sealing cracks in the foundation or expansion joints or making adjustments to ventilation systems to bring more fresh air into a room. Newer building codes that require better ventilation have dramatically lowered the incidence of elevated radon levels. So have upgrades to aging systems. When old systems have been replaced, radon levels went down, even in older buildings.

Colorado Springs: Fixes still working, 20 years later

And even 20-year-old fixes may still be doing the job they were designed to do. That’s what Dan Moors, environmental specialist for Colorado Springs District 11 schools, found. When Moors was hired in 2005, he was told one of his jobs would be overseeing the district’s radon program.

“At the time, I didn’t know a lot about radon so I wrote it down on my ‘things to do’ list,” Moors said. Twenty years ago, the district found five schools with elevated radon levels, which required seven different mitigation projects. Moors went to those schools and looked at the systems put in place in 1991. At one site, he found a sticker with the installer’s name and phone number on it. He called.

Radon fan controller
During his monthly inspections, D-11 environmental specialist Dan Moors powers down radon fans for about a minute, then turns them back on. If something is wrong with the system, the needle will indicate trouble.

The installer was Doug Kladder, one of the foremost radon mitigation experts in the state.

“He walked me through what radon was, what the regulation meant to schools, and why I needed to be concerned,” Moors said. “I asked him if he would go back through all our mitigated buildings and inspect the systems, just to make sure they were still intact, to retest the schools, duplicate the ’91 follow-up test and tell me what he thought. That was my starting point in the radon world, and as far as I know, that was the only thing District 11 had ever done.”

Kladder retested all the schools involved and found that, while the numbers weren’t identical to those found after remediation in 1991, they were close.

“We found the fans were doing their job,” Moors said. “Ironically, the fans that power the systems that suck the radon out of the basements started to fail, one by one, soon after that. It’s a good thing we looked at them when we did. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have known. Now we have brand-new fans that hopefully will run another 20 years.”

Today, Moors inspects the radon mitigation systems every month, just to be safe. “It takes me 2½ hours one day a month, so it’s not a great time investment. But if I didn’t look at those for another 20 years and they failed for whatever reason, and we let radon levels go up, well, from a moral standpoint, I’m not going to let that happen. I feel it’s my job to make sure kids are safe at all times.”

Health officials advise parents who have concerns about radon levels at a child’s school to talk to their local school board. Members of the RAC also want to recruit teachers, who spend more time in schools than youngsters do, to be a lobbying force to insist that their classrooms be tested and that remediation steps be taken if needed.

But beyond that, they suggest that homeowners should test and mitigate, since most people spend the majority of their time at home.

What radon is, and how it kills

  • Radon is a colorless, odorless, tasteless, naturally-occurring radioactive gas. It is the second-leading cause of lung cancer in the United States. While it is found in all 50 states, it is especially problematic in Colorado, where 53 of 64 counties report high levels of the gas.
  • It originates in uranium-bearing granite deposits underground and seeps into buildings through cracks in the foundation, spaces under basement slabs, through openings around drains and into well water.
  • It’s not an immediate threat to life, the way carbon monoxide is, but long-term exposure to the gas is believed responsible for 21,000 lung cancer deaths each year, including 500 in Colorado.
  • State health officials estimate that fully half of the homes in Colorado have radon levels in excess of 4.0 picoCuries per liter of air, the level above which the Environmental Protection Agency considers unsafe.

Colorado law on radon testing in schools

  • Each school shall have completed radon tests by March 1, 1991. Schools constructed after the effective date of these rules and regulations shall complete radon tests within nineteen months of the date of occupancy. Schools remodeled after the effective date of these rules and regulations shall notify the department of such remodeling in order that the department may assess the need for any additional radon testing. Radon tests shall be conducted pursuant to the procedures described in the Environmental Protection Agency’s, Radon Measurements in Schools, Revised Edition July 1993 (EPA Documents #402-RO-92-014). The results of these tests shall be on file at each school and available for review.

For more information

  • Read a briefing paper on radon in the schools, prepared by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.
  • Learn about the Environmental Protection Agency’s IAG Tools for Schools program, a comprehensive package of resources for helping schools maintain healthy indoor air quality.

How I Help

Students were obsessed with social media. Here’s what this middle school counselor did about it.

PHOTO: Hero Images | Getty Images

In our “How I Help” series, we feature school counselors, social workers, and psychologists who have been recognized for their work. You can see other pieces in the series here.

Students at Eagle Valley Middle School in western Colorado were spending lots of time on social media, and too often their comments turned mean. Counselor Kayleen Schweitzer decided things needed to change, so last year she spearheaded a schoolwide campaign urging students, staff and parents to take a five-day break from social media. More than 150 people signed the pledge.

The results were encouraging. Participating students reported that they had more free time and were getting to bed earlier. Some even said the break made them realize they had been addicted to social media.

Schweitzer, who was named 2018 Middle School Counselor of the Year by the Colorado School Counselor Association, talked about how campaign organizers got students to participate, what she wants parents to know about middle-schoolers, and why she wants students to regard visiting a counselor as normal.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Why did you become a school counselor?

When I was 15, I lost my father. It was very unexpected and I found out at school. When I returned to school no one checked on me or followed up to see if I was doing OK. I remember wishing I had more support at school. That was the first time I realized that one day I wanted to be someone who could be there for students going through a hard time or transition.

When I was in college my favorite classes had to do with child development. I went on to pursue a degree in family and human services and a graduate degree in school counseling. I’m definitely happy with my decision to be a school counselor and I look forward to going to work every day.

Tell us about an effort or initiative you spearheaded at your school that you’re particularly proud of?

In the 2016-17 school year, my principal Katie Jarnot and I identified a need for something that would help with some of the conflicts occurring at our school. Katie came across a national program called No Place For Hate. It was just what we were looking for. In the 2017-18 school year, we brought No Place For Hate to our school. It has been amazing and powerful.

We noticed a lot of mean behavior on social media and that our students were spending so much time online. Also, with a surge of recent research into the detrimental effects of screen time, social media, and the correlation to depression and anxiety, it was clear there needed to be a change. So Eagle Valley Middle School’s No Place for Hate Coalition created a schoolwide activity that attempted to give students, staff, and parents a glimpse into positives that can come from limiting social media use and taking back control of our lives. We asked our school community to commit to giving up social media for five days.

During those five days, everyone who took the pledge was asked to do a daily reflection on the differences that they noticed. We offered a chance to win prizes as an incentive. To our surprise, we had 110 students (about one-third of our school), 18 staff, and 30 parents sign up.

Though not everyone completed the five days, we felt we brought some awareness to this problem. Students noticed how much more time they had when not using social media and they were able to get to bed earlier. Some actually admitted this activity helped them realize that they are addicted to social media. A few parents reported they were able to be more present with their family at night and have fewer distractions.

Is there a tool, curriculum or program you couldn’t live without in your job?

The tool I couldn’t live without is Google forms. Students can fill out a form to let me know they need to see me. When they fill out the form it notifies me with an email and I can see who is requesting to see me. It also allows me to keep data on what issues my students need support with. This helps me plan what supports I need to put in place through classroom guidance lessons, small groups, and individual counseling.

What’s the biggest misconception you’ve encountered about your role in the school where you work?

The biggest misconception I have encountered is that it’s a bad thing to go to the school counselor and that you need to have a huge problem. I have noticed that some middle school students are embarrassed to be seen going to the school counselor. I have worked really hard to make it normal to come to me and teach them that the strongest, most successful people need help sometimes.

You spend lots of time with students. Knowing what you know, what advice would you give to parents?

I would remind parents that students’ frontal lobes are not fully developed and when they say they don’t know why they did something, they are probably being honest. I would also let them know that even if a student says they want parents to give them space and leave them alone, it’s not really what they want or need.

Tell us about a time when you managed to connect with a challenging student or a student facing a difficult situation. How did you do it?

I have a student who is now in eighth grade and has been coming to see me on a regular basis when she needs support. As a sixth-grader, she was so closed off and worried about being seen coming to talk to me. I have been very consistent with her and kept reminding her that I’m always here if she needs anything. I ended up running a group with her and a lot of her friends. She saw that her friends loved coming to see me and were willing to talk to work through some of their problems. I also spent time with her and showed her it was a safe place to talk. Over time she broke down her walls and was able to trust me. Today, she stops by when she is doing well and when she is struggling. She loves to come and eat lunch with me. She has grown so much and I’m going to miss her dearly when she goes to high school.

What is the hardest part of your job?

The hardest part of my job is going home and worrying about my students. You always wish you could do more or make students see things can get better and they are enough. Middle school is such a hard time for students as they struggle to find where they fit in and deal with personal changes.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.

In my first years as a school counselor, I had a student who was consistently falling asleep in class and missing a ton of school. When I had a meeting with his family, I found out that his mother was a single mom and his grandma, who also lived in the house, was very sick. The student was staying home to help take care of his grandma and his siblings so his mom could work and make money for the family. His father was an alcoholic who was in and out of rehab.

I realized that different cultures have unique values and priorities. It also taught me that you never know what someone is going through so we need to really take time to talk to kids to figure out what is happening in their personal lives before jumping to conclusions.

You spend your days trying to help students and staff with any number of things. How do you wind down after a stressful day?

The way I wind down after a stressful day is to come home and spend time with my children. They are still young and innocent. I try to really enjoy this precious time with them when they have fewer worries and just want to have fun. I also love spending time with friends and clearing my mind of the worries of my job. Last, I enjoy catching up with email and work-related tasks as every time I scratch out something on my to-do list I seem to get stress relief.

Chilling effect

Five ways a proposed immigration rule could impact Colorado students and schools

PHOTO: JGI/Jamie Grill | Getty Images

Advocates for immigrant families fear that a proposed federal rule governing green card decisions could lead to more children going hungry and losing housing and health care. That, in turn, could pose challenges for educators and schools.

The proposed rule would allow the government to penalize some legal immigrants who have used public benefits by denying them permanent residency — a possibility that could prompt families to forgo any kind of government help. For children in those families, many of them citizens, the result could be hunger pangs, untreated illness, or outsized worry that their parents won’t be able to stay in the U.S. Inside schools, the new rule could mean more time and energy spent addressing students’ basic needs and the loss of funding from some public programs.

Fear that immigrants will shy away from benefit programs is nothing new. Stricter immigration rules since President Trump took office — stepped-up raids, efforts to discontinue the DACA program, and family separations at the U.S.-Mexico border — have already led to a chilling effect on the legal use of public benefits by immigrants. Advocates say changes to the so-called “public charge” rule will only exacerbate the problem.

The rationale behind the proposed rule, a stricter version of one that’s been in place for years, is to prevent immigration by people who will end up dependent on government help. Opponents of the rule say it punishes working-class immigrants who may need short-term aid, but contribute much more to the country’s economy over the long term.

The existing public charge rule penalizes immigrants for using programs such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families or long-term care. The proposed version adds several more to the list, including Medicaid, food stamps, and housing vouchers. Free and reduced-price school meals aren’t included in the existing or proposed rule.

Mónica Parra, program manager of the Denver school district’s migrant education program, said families she works with are reluctant to sign up for any kind of help, even assistance heating their homes during the winter.

“They’d rather struggle or find other ways to get support,” she said. “It’s going to be very challenging to keep students motivated, but also safe. Maybe they’re going to be cold. Maybe they’re going to get sick.”

The proposed public charge rule doesn’t apply to refugees and asylum-seekers, and doesn’t penalize immigrants for public benefits used by their children. Still, like other advocates, Parra said she hears anxiety about the proposed rule from all kinds of immigrants, including citizens and those who already hold green cards.

They worry that using public benefits could get their own legal status revoked or hurt their chances to sponsor family members who want to immigrate to the U.S.

“The fear has always been there in these communities,” she said. “Now, people are even more afraid.”

The new public charge rule likely won’t take effect for months. First, there will be a 60-day public comment period, scheduled to start Wednesday, and then Trump administration officials will consider the comments and decide whether to make any adjustments.

Here’s a look at some of the ways the proposed rule could affect Colorado schools and students.

More kids come to school hungry

There are at least two ways schools could see more hungry students walking through their doors due to the public charge rule. First, families may be afraid to take advantage of food stamps — either by deciding not to enroll, or by dis-enrolling current recipients, such as citizen children.

Both Denver and Adams counties have seen dips in the number of people participating in the program over the last couple years. In Denver, about 2,000 fewer children receive the benefit now than in November 2016 when President Trump was elected. However, city officials caution that it’s hard to make a direct connection between falling participation and federal immigration policies since historically low unemployment rates may also be contributing to the trend.

While free and discounted school lunches are not part of the public charge rule, some advocates report that immigrant parents have been wary of enrolling their kids since Trump’s election. By law, public schools must serve students regardless of their immigration status and can’t ask for information regarding a family’s or student’s status.

A week after the Department of Homeland Security released a draft of the new public charge rule on its website, the Eagle County school district emailed parents asking them to help squash the rumor that signing children up for free or reduced-lunches “will inform ICE,” a reference to the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency.

The letter concluded, “There is NO RISK in applying for free and reduced lunch, help us spread the word.”

So, what happens when kids go to school hungry? They may have trouble paying attention, misbehave more easily, or suffer from headaches or stomach aches. In short, less learning.

More children without health insurance, more student absences

The public charge rule’s chilling effect could have a major impact on child health, according to a recent Colorado Health Institute analysis. An estimated 48,000 Colorado children — the vast majority of them citizens — could be disenrolled from one of two public health insurance programs, Medicaid or Child Health Plan Plus. That would double the state’s rate of uninsured children from 3 percent to 6.7 percent, according to the institute.

The reason for so much dropoff is that health insurance is typically a family affair. So even when different rules govern adults and children in the same family, they tend to be enrolled as a group or not at all.

When students don’t have health insurance, school attendance and performance can suffer. For example, children may be absent more if they lack help managing chronic conditions like asthma, or if they’re not getting treatment for acute illnesses or painful dental problems.

Loss of health-related funding for schools and school-based clinics

School districts stand to lose two health-related funding streams if the number of uninsured children swells. The first would impact the state’s 62 school-based health clinics, which would likely see a drop in Medicaid and Child Health Plan Plus reimbursements if fewer students enroll in those programs.

Such an enrollment decline, which some clinic leaders have already reported, could make it harder for school-based clinics to stay afloat financially, said Bridget Beatty, executive director of the Colorado Association for School-Based Health Care.

With more uninsured students, “The need will go up,” she said, “but conversely the ability to financially sustain them will get more challenging.” 

In addition, 53 Colorado school districts receive funding through a program that could be affected by the proposed public charge rule. It’s called the School Health Services Program and allows districts to seek Medicaid reimbursements for services provided to low-income students with disabilities. That money can be used for health-related efforts that benefit all students, such as the addition of school nurses, wellness coordinators, or suicide prevention programs.

Funding received through the program ranges from a couple thousand dollars in small districts to a few million in large districts.

High-poverty schools have a harder time offering universal free meals

Nearly 40,000 students in 20 Colorado school districts can eat school meals for free because their schools participate in a federal program designed to make breakfast and lunch easily accessible to low-income students. But that number could drop if the public charge rule decreases food stamp participation.

The special meal program, called Community Eligibility Provision, is open to schools or districts where at least 40 percent of students come from families that use certain public benefits, including food stamps or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. Unlike in traditional school lunch programs, parents don’t have to fill out applications for free or reduced-price meals.

“Any time when you have eligible families not participating in SNAP, it does have a negative impact on community eligibility,” said Crystal FitzSimons, director of school programs at the national nonprofit Food Research and Action Center.

Even if schools or districts remain eligible for the program, a drop in students getting public benefits could mean a change in how schools are reimbursed for the free meals, she said. That, in turn, could make the program less financially viable for schools or districts to participate.

Immigrants could turn away from publicly funded early childhood programs

Crystal Munoz, who heads the nonprofit Roots Family Center in southwest Denver, worries that the Spanish-speaking families her program serves will stop using programs like Head Start, state child care subsidies, and the Denver Preschool Program, which provides tuition assistance to the city’s 4-year-olds.

Even though those programs aren’t part of the proposed rule, there’s still trepidation, she said. It’s because of the constant flurry of rule changes and the generally negative tone around immigration right now.

“We find ourselves very afraid to even give out resources or referrals to certain programs because we’re not sure,” she said. “For us, it’s waiting and seeing.”

She said if families do drop out of Head Start or other child care programs, it could push children — many of them citizens — into unlicensed care with relatives or neighbors, or force parents to cut back work hours to stay at home with them.