FIRST ON 3: School deemed fire hazard; Operates uninspected for 10 years
JASPER, MARION COUNTY (WRCB) – New documents reveal a school previously closed for asbestos and fire hazards has actually been reopened and housing students for more than ten years, without the knowledge of state inspectors.
Channel 3 has acquired documents from the State Fire Marshal's office indicating Marion County Academy, a school housing Alternative Education and Behavior Management classes, has been operating without the knowledge of state inspectors since 2001.
In October of 2011, the Fire Marshal received a complaint about the conditions at Marion County Academy and conducted an inspection during Fall Break.
Channel 3 obtained a copy of a State Fire Marshal's report after concerned parents and viewers contacted us.
It says the Marion Academy was last inspected in 2001 and was deemed unsafe then. The state office assumed no one was occupying the building since then because there was an agreement to shut the building down.
But that clearly is not the case.
Last month the State Fire Marshal's Office was tipped off about classes still being taught at Marion County Academy.
It used to be an elementary school but the Fire Marshal shut it down in July of 2001 after finding multiple safety violations, including asbestos.
But the school reopened as the Academy, housing special needs students and alternative classes.
When school board Chairman Jim Poston was asked if he was aware the safety issues existed when students were moved into the building, he responded, "Frankly, I don't recall."
Poston says the asbestos was removed this past summer and the EPA deemed it safe.
While the asbestos in the building has been cleaned up, the report cites more than 20 safety code violations, including a non-working fire alarm system and using kerosene heaters to help heat the building.
None of the original problems was fixed since 2001.
The documents list three pages of violations. Among those: hallways and exits blocked by asbestos abatement plastic sheeting; lack of emergency lighting; hallways being used as storage areas; ceiling tiles made of flammable materials; insufficient fire alarm system.
At the conclusion of last month's inspection, the Fire Marshal ordered the building be placed on fire watch, with a firefighter stationed at the school at all times.
The report goes on to say "the school district has failed to comply with their plan of corrective action by closing the school."
"When we had a fire drill, I would call over the telephone. We have phones in all of our rooms. And say 'This is a fire drill,'" says Principal Toby Wilson-White.
She says she moved most students to other schools on October 18th, the day after he report was issued. The special needs students? They were not moved to Whitwell Middle until yesterday.
"We had to work out bussing issues to be able to get them down there," says Wilson-White.
She says she understands why parents would be upset but has worked in the building for 11 years and says it is safe.
"I feel that we had a very safe building. I don't feel that any children were in danger whatsoever. I would not have had a problem bringing my child here," she says.
"We're going to look at all of the options available to us and then move forward," says Poston.
The Academy is still housing adult classes and administrative staff. We checked with the State Fire Marshal's Office who says their oversight extends only to k-12-related uses of school facilities, so they can still be there.
Poston says the school board will be addressing what to do with the building at their next meeting on the 29th.
He says it is still to early to determine if it needs to be torn down or remodeled.
We will continue to follow this story.