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Mysterious Odor Drives Students from Classroom

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A stench described as resembling "a dead rodent stuck in the walls … or sewage" in a kindergarten classroom at John B. Cary Elementary has forced students to seek refuge in the library for the remainder of the school year.

In response to Style Weekly's requests for photos of building conditions inside Richmond Public Schools, a district employee emailed a picture of a kindergarten teacher's makeshift library classroom. Requesting anonymity for fear of retribution, the employee says the odor appeared in the kindergarten classroom when students returned from spring break April 21.

Two days later, the library was turned into a makeshift classroom, where students will remain through the end of the school year.

Cary Principal Brenda Phillips declined to discuss the situation last week, turning away a reporter from the school, where a musty smell hung over the main foyer.

Officials found droppings in the cafeteria before spring break and brought in an exterminator, schools spokeswoman Cletisha Lovelace says. The subsequent smell led staff to believe mice had died behind the classroom's cubbies, but the exterminators found no carcasses.

District workers now are investigating the plumbing. "The smell is more of a sewer smell than a decomposing smell," Lovelace says.

Fifth District School Board Representative Mamie Taylor, who represents Cary, says she's as concerned by employees' reluctance to openly report such problems as she is by the stench. The board is working to change the "culture and climate" that keeps employees from sharing concerns because they are afraid of retribution, she says.

"They should at the very least be safe and healthy," she says, "and feel comfortable to say if that's not the case."

School Board Vice President Kristen Larson says the board is looking for ways to help employees report poor conditions and other issues anonymously by the end of the school year, including a survey and messaging system from Herndon-based company K12 Insight.

The survey also would allow parents and students to submit comments — anonymously, if they choose.

"This will give the superintendent a benchmark and allow us to see where we are today and measure that as we go forward," Larson says.

Even with an anonymous survey system, Larson says it could take years to create the kind of open culture that Taylor is talking about. In the meantime, she says, "we need people to be proactive and work with their building leadership to bring up issues."

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Students, employees and parents at Richmond Public Schools may email photos of school building conditions to letters@styleweekly.com or use the #MyRPS hashtag on social media. For full coverage visit www.styleweekly.com/myrps.

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