Former Assistant Dean Recounts Mold Outbreak and Evacuation at Washington Adventist University

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August 9, 2019

When April Williams accepted the position of Assistant Dean of Halcyon Hall in January 2018, little did she know she was stepping into a nightmare. The challenges that exist for many aging buildings on college campuses were evident in Halcyon, the women’s residence hall of Washington Adventist University, but they were about to get much, much worse.

Williams, who has asthma and other respiratory health issues, began experiencing trouble breathing upon moving into her living quarters, an apartment on the lower level of Halcyon. Head Dean Sabrina Etienne sent an email to the Facilities Department on January 25 requesting a deep cleaning of the apartment and asked that the old carpet be replaced with a non-carpeted flooring. “She is having difficulty breathing in there and I fear for her health in the long run,” said Etienne. Williams also notes that the ceiling kept leaking and had caved in, which left the carpet wet and exacerbated her breathing issues. But the requests, which required authorization from Vice President of Finance Patrick Farley, were denied.

The spring and summer of 2018 proved to be the wettest on record for the State of Maryland, as well as surrounding areas like Washington D.C., and by the month of May, the problems in Williams’ lower level apartment had spread to other areas of Halcyon Hall. The roof was leaking, the floors were wet, and mold was cropping up in rooms, leaving the deans and resident advisors (RAs) scrambling to move residents and guests to unaffected rooms.

With the spring semester ended and less students in residence, Williams hoped to see these problems receive attention over the summer, before the new school year began and the residence hall was once again full of students. But this didn’t happen.

When Natalie, a medical student on clinical rotation at Washington Adventist Hospital who was residing in Halcyon for the summer, discovered spots of black-colored mold in her room in July, Williams sent an emergency work order request to facilities on July 10. “Black mold has been found in LL [Lower Level] room 3, please provide remediation….Areas with mold include: Area behind desk, area on ceiling, above the bed...between the two windows.”

Three days later, Williams still hadn’t received a response and Natalie began experiencing symptoms consistent with mold exposure, including respiratory issues and headaches. “Wanted to follow up in the emergency remediation needed for LL room 3, the resident is beginning to feel ill and this is already her second move. Is it possible to have someone take care of this today?” asked Williams in a follow-up email dated July 13, but no help was forthcoming. Natalie was forced to switch rooms a total of three times that summer, in an attempt to outrun the mold that continued to spread.

According to Williams, the deans and RAs were left to battle the encroaching mold alone all summer, but with the new school year fast-approaching, they again asked for assistance. In an email on August 13 to the head of facilities, VP of finance, and assistant to the VP for student life, Dean Etienne wrote,

There appears to be a serious mold issue in Halcyon Hall. Two of my RAs were cleaning rooms in preparation for the arrival of new students yesterday and there were several rooms that were infested with mold, and some unable to be cleaned and have to be banned for now.

This is obviously a serious health concern for all residents. Since there was no approval given for the deep cleaning requested of every room, the RAs have taken the task of "deep cleaning." With the presence of mold it became more problematic and one of the RAs woke up this morning with two swollen eyes…that she believes may be caused by the exposure to mold. I am not certain how to proceed as I am highly concerned for the current and incoming students.

I would appreciate discussion towards a solution to this issue as soon as possible, as I fear that as students inhabit these rooms in the beginning of the [school] year more will be effected.

With students set to arrive in just six days, on August 19, and every room needed to accommodate a healthy enrollment, Etienne’s email seems to have sparked a sense of urgency in administration. VP of Student Life Amy Ortiz-Moretta responded within a few hours, stating that her office would connect the RAs with the appropriate medical services and asking head of facilities Steven Lapham if these issues could be addressed before the students moved in.

A flurry of work orders and emails followed over the next few days, with the deans requesting deep cleaning and carpet replacement for the rooms with mold. Ortiz-Moretta offered to send her student employee over to help assess which rooms needed attention, but Williams declined, not wanting to expose more students to illness, and stating that she and the RAs had already identified and documented the status of all rooms in Halcyon Hall. A total of 31 rooms, spanning the entire four floors of the building, had mold in various places from ceilings and walls to carpets and air conditioners.

But what help they did receive was not effective. “They never cleaned the rooms properly,” states Williams, who says correct remediation steps were not followed, nor was carpet replaced or the rooms re-painted. Rather, only four of the rooms were slated for “mold clean-up” and the rest of the work requests were closed on August 16. Williams re-sent her list of 31 rooms with no reply. On August 21, with the new student orientation week now underway, VP Ortiz-Moretta followed up with a document listing in detail the issues still present in 28 uninhabitable rooms including mold, odors, water damage, carpet stains, and more.

Williams says she does not blame the facilities staff for what happened next. “The school has not provided them with the adequate staffing or funding to keep up with all the aging infrastructure issues in ALL the building on campus.” She adds that in her opinion because facilities staff were working in “emergency mode… they were not thinking about long term, had they really addressed the mold when it first started happening we wouldn't have ended up where we did.”

Where they ended up next didn’t come as a surprise to Williams who, along with Etienne, had been sounding the alarm for months, but the administration’s response — or lack thereof — did.

By September, the new school year was in full swing and the mold was completely out of control. Dean Etienne again raised the issue with administration after receiving an angry phone call from the parent of a freshman student. In an email on September 18 to WAU President Weymouth Spence, VP Ortiz-Moretta, VP of Finance Patrick Farley, and facilities manager Lapham, Etienne again detailed the presence of mold throughout the building before turning to the matter of the phone call. “[The mother] was vehemently upset after her daughter sent her video of mold growing out of her room,” said Etienne. “… [and] she reports her daughter sounding sick and her roommate being sick, possibly due to contact with mold.”


A moldy shoe discovered by a student.


Etienne asked for a thorough investigation and mold remediation of every room to be completed ASAP. “The Deans in Halcyon Hall are having to move residents from rooms one after the other due to issues with mold. We need help,” she concluded, and then followed up with another official emergency work order request which stated, “Mold Investigation/Remediation needed for entire building including every room but not limited to bedrooms ASAP.”

In response, Lapham was finally given approval to reach out to a mold remediation company, Sandow Construction, to conduct testing and provide a proposal on next steps, and emailed WAU staff to determine the scope of work needed throughout the campus, not just in Halcyon Hall. 

In the interest of the students’ health, the deans also issued an emergency notice to Halcyon residents about the presence of mold and ways to reduce the risk of mold growth, encouraging students to alert the deans and RAs immediately when they spotted new mold. They then held an emergency meeting with the residents and handed out DampRid for each room to help with moisture control.

Meanwhile, more students were calling home and in turn, more parents were calling the deans. “[My] daughter is feeling light-headed…these living conditions are questionable,” wrote one mother who was assured her daughter would be moved to a new room and the current room would receive mold treatment.

It seemed steps were finally being taken to address the situation, but it was too little, too late in the minds of some. The WAU Mobile app features a “campus wall” section where members of the campus community can post questions and comments. A student posted about the mold, stating that the school was attempting to put a Band-Aid on a much larger issue, thereby bringing the situation to the attention of everyone on the app. Shortly thereafter, an anonymous individual, identified only as someone “inside the building” filed a formal complaint with the Montgomery County Department of Health and Human Services citing “mold, rats and roaches observed in the Halcyon building.”

Despite the growing problem, pressure from the deans, sick students, and angry parents, Williams says President Spence questioned what he was hearing. “His first thought was to maintain the decorum of the university rather than trust the deans,” says Williams, adding that though Spence doubted what the residents kept finding was really mold, he never visited Halcyon to see for himself.

Sandow Construction arrived on September 21, confirmed that it was mold, and took air samples to determine the level and species, before submitting their proposed mold remediation plan to the school.

Montgomery County conducted its investigation on September 25. The report, obtained through a FOIA request, is included at the end of this article. Violations were found to the interior and exterior of the building, as well as to the water supply system. The report indicates that Inspector Donna Breckenridge spoke to Lapham, who confirmed the mold problem and that the university was in talks with Sandow Construction who had already been there. The report further notes the presence of “black microbial spores” in several rooms, on ceilings, furniture, doors, and inside air conditioners, as well as mildew odors in rooms and halls, water damaged carpet in hallways, and air quality problems.

The other issues (rats and roaches) noted by the anonymous individual were not found inside the building by the health department during its investigation, but the report notes that the vendor providing the school with ongoing pest control treatment, American Pest Control, had observed mice and roaches on several occasions throughout the building, and at least one incident of rats outside.

The same day the county health department came calling, flooding occurred in Halcyon, further compounding the issues. On the recommendation of the health department and Sandow Construction, plans were made to evacuate the residents to an area hotel while remediation was complete.

The formal evacuation notice, written by administration and sent to residents on September 28, notes that testing by a “board certified industrial hygienist….confirmed the presence of allergenic, though not lethal forms of mold in a number of rooms….The good news is that the dormitory tested negative for the more dangerous, so-called ‘black mold’ most commonly linked to illness.”

The letter goes on to state that the “university is immediately acting on the industrial hygienist’s recommendation to evacuate Halcyon Hall in on [sic] order to ensure student safety, and facilitate remediation of the situation.” No mention is made of the warnings that came from the deans over the spring and summer months, nor that several students had already fallen ill.

Confusion and frustration ensued as the over 150 young women were given mere hours to clean and pack their belongings, in between and around attending to their normal classes, jobs, and extracurricular activities. The women were told to just bring their necessities to the hotel and to leave the rest of their belongings behind where, the school said, those belongings would remain safe in their rooms until they returned. But after the women moved out, word came down that Sandow Construction needed the rooms completely cleared for remediation treatment. Administration then hired a moving company to help pack up what remained in the rooms, from furniture and clothes, to paperwork, photos, and more.

On October 8, the presence of mold and subsequent evacuation and remediation efforts were announced to the wider WAU community through an email from President Spence. “Consistent with our priority concern for student safety and comfort, due to environmental conditions, Washington Adventist University recently had buildings on campus tested for mildew and mold,” begins the email, before going on to note the inclement weather that created a perfect breeding ground and that “other institutions of higher learning in the greater Baltimore-Washington area” are also experiencing allergenic mold growth.

Indeed, in an article that appeared later that year titled “Higher Ed’s Spreading Problem: How Colleges Are Struggling With Campus Mold,” The Chronicle of Higher Education discussed similar battles with mold at University of Tennessee – Knoxville, Indiana University at Bloomington, Kutztown University of Pennsylvania, and University of Maryland at College Park, the last of which saw the death of student Oliva Paregol. Her parents, who have filed suit against the school, attribute her death to the mold exposure she experienced, and the university’s failure to act in a timely manner regarding the situation.

In WAU’s weekly bulletin on October 12, 2018, the lead story by then-VP of Communications, Doug Walker, was “High Humidity Forces Temporary Halcyon Hall Closure.” In addition to excerpts from Spence’s email earlier that week, Walker stressed that “WAU took immediate action on the industrial hygienist’s recommendation, and initiated an evacuation of Halcyon Hall.” The article also quoted Spence as saying, “We have no higher priority than the safety and security of the students entrusted to us.”

Several action items were listed in the article including twice-daily town hall-style listening sessions between administration and students; renovations to Halcyon in addition to the remediation, including “remodeling the showers and upgrading the light fixtures”; shuttle service between the hotel and campus; communication to professors asking for flexibility during this time; and more.

“The remediation work is expected to be completed in approximately 2-4 weeks,” stated Walker in the article, but that proved an optimistic estimate. Walker, who multiple sources confirm was fired later that school year, in January 2019, could not be reached for comment on this article.

Housing over 150 women in a hotel for what turned out to be just shy of a month was challenging to say the least. Unlike a residence hall where entrances and exits can be closely monitored and controlled, the hotel offered the students an opportunity at freedom which some tested to full advantage. Assistant Dean Williams recounts that the deans and RAs were in battle mode, up against an uptick in drug use, boys sneaking into rooms, and fights breaking out in the hotel.

The hired shuttle service drivers were unfamiliar with the most efficient routes between the hotel and campus and students were late to class because of it. Despite administration urging professors to show flexibility to the situation, Williams says this did not always happen, and students were marked tardy because their shuttle driver had gotten lost on the way.

International students faced their own set of challenges because their change of address (from Halcyon to hotel) was not immediately communicated by administration. Per immigration regulations, any change of address (even temporary) needed to be communicated to the International Student Program Department, but it took several weeks before this happened, according to email exchanges between that department, administration, and the Halcyon deans. There were also underage students to consider, who needed parental consent for the move. Instead of coordinating with the admissions office for a full list of underage students, Williams says administration relied on the deans, who did not have access to age information, to tell them which students were underage, which caused delays in communication to parents.

Meanwhile, the town hall “listening sessions,” would often turn into screaming matches between the students and President Spence, says Williams, with both sides yelling at each other. A source who asked to remain anonymous confirmed this, stating that it “got quite loud and disrespectful at times.”

On October 17, in an upbeat email to students, President Spence announced exciting news:

“I was informed by the project manager that they are making excellent progress in the Halcyon Hall remediation work! As of today, the second and third floors are cleaned-up and ready to go, and the first floor and lower level are nearing completion. It’s time to begin planning our move back into the Halcyon Hall!”

The move back in was scheduled for October 22 and 23, and American Mega Laundromat was hired to launder all of the residents’ clothing items. “All items that were packed and removed from your room — including your freshly laundered clothes will be in your room on your arrival,” stated Spence.

But, “This was a complete lie,” says Williams. “I saw the building with my own eyes. We weren't even anywhere close to being ready to return to Halcyon Hall when this email was sent based on building conditions, not to mention mold was still present in the building when we returned. We had to move back because there was not enough rooms available at the Holiday Inn in College Park and the University was hemorrhaging money.”

When asked how much money was spent on the various aspects of this situation – mold remediation, hotel stay, moving company, professional laundering, shuttle service, and ensuing legal claims – current VP of communication Richard Castillo, who was hired in February 2019 to replace the ousted Doug Walker, said he didn’t know and wouldn’t want to speculate, but that the number was “expansive” and the “university paid quite a bit.” However, several sources close to the situation, including a former administrator who spoke under condition of anonymity, stated that the university’s hotel bill was around $7,000 per day, there were approximately $100,000 in settlement claims, and the total cost to the university was upwards of $1.1 million.

Those settlement claims came as a result of what the students returned to when they were allowed to move back in. In a word, it was chaos. When Assistant Dean Williams and VP of Finance Patrick Farley did what was supposed to be their final walk through on October 22, what awaited them was a great disappointment. “We found the building in shambles,” says Williams. But with the financial pressure of the hotel stay no longer sustainable, the administration moved students back in anyway on October 23.

Despite the president’s earlier promises, the students did not find their belongings waiting for them in their rooms. Instead, unlabeled clothing, electronics, furniture and more, were strewn throughout the building. Some items were missing altogether, seemingly thrown out or stolen, and some of what was present was damaged. It was complete disorganization, says Williams, whose sensitive financial documents were found by a student on the third floor, far from her lower level apartment. Various residents’ belongings were jumbled together, and students could only hope to find what was theirs among the piles of items that lined the hallways and filled spare rooms.


Students attempt to find their belongings.


Three overflow rooms were set up to hold the many belongings.


While the students searched for their stuff, the deans made midnight runs to the store for towels and bedding so the students could sleep and shower.

Many of the residents, including Williams, never did recover all of their belongings. A handsome living room set that had been Williams’ first “adult” purchase after graduating college was thrown out without her knowledge or consent.

President Spence addressed the issue in an October 24 email, where he stated in part:

“We know you continue to experience challenges as you transition back into the residence. We particularly apologize that many of you did not find all of your belongings in your rooms as you expected. Due to concerns for safety, and to prevent reintroducing mold into the remediated living space, our contracted industrial hygienist had all packed personal effects un-boxed. Solid items were wiped clean, clothing articles were sent to be laundered or dry-cleaned, and other item were slated to be discarded. 

The university is investigating why, despite our request to the contrary those discarded items appear to have been disposed of before your return to campus.”

Students were instructed to file claims with the university, and the first round of reimbursement checks were sent to residents on November 19, 2018. Of the $23,625 Williams claimed, she was only reimbursed $6,200, which did not cover the full cost of all her missing and damaged items, nor the $15,000 in punitive damages Williams’ had included per her attorney’s recommendation. Williams believes Etienne has not yet been fully reimbursed by the university either.

According to Williams, she and Etienne were originally told Sandow Construction would be reimbursing their claims, but this did not happen. Though the university publicly blamed Sandow Construction for the mismanagement of personal belongings, the remediation company refused to help reimburse any claims, leaving the university to shoulder that financial burden alone. “There was no liability clause in the contract [with Sandow],” says Williams, so the company was under no legal obligation to provide reimbursement. Williams cites the university’s lack of full-time legal counsel as contributing to this contractual oversight. Sandow Construction declined my request for comment on this situation, but does still list Washington Adventist University as a client as of this writing.

The former administrator who spoke under anonymity added that despite positive financial reports each year that reflect a healthy net worth, the university is consistently cash poor, with all of its financial assets tied up in its property. Understandably, these issues were exponentially exacerbated by the mold crisis, leaving the university financially strapped.

VP Castillo admits that there were some “snafus with vendors,” but disputes Williams’ allegation that she and Etienne were not fully reimbursed, saying administration went “above and beyond” and that “some individuals got paid twice.”

Further adding to the strain of the situation for Williams was the unexpected death of her brother, Markus, in late November. Earlier that month, Williams had gone to Haiti on a mission trip with her church, from November 7–14. With very little time to reorganize her life between moving back from the hotel and leaving for the trip, her apartment remained in a state of chaos that she hoped to tackle upon her return from Haiti. She became sick while she was away and was just recovering when days later her brother’s colleague called to say Markus had missed work. “That was very unlike him,” Williams recounts. The colleague said Markus had complained of a headache on Sunday. It was now Tuesday, November 20, and there had been no word from him. Markus was found dead in his apartment later that day, having suffered a brain aneurysm.

Not only was Williams now grieving the death of her brother, but with no furniture and her apartment in chaos, she had no place to welcome the family, friends, and colleagues who came to offer their condolences.

Meanwhile, despite Spence stating that the “mold has been abated” in October, remediation efforts and construction continued, as the deans and students continued to find pockets of mold in various areas. Williams notes that throughout the rest of the semester, residents had to put up with various construction issues like off-limit areas and the noise from ongoing repairs. On the first floor, the construction team had to drill through walls to mitigate the mold, and “there were students living down the hall from all of this.” Williams says Dean Etienne also discovered that unclaimed clothing being held in an overflow room on the first floor was beginning to mold up again in mid-December.


Remediation work continued after students moved back in.


When Williams had originally accepted the temporary assistant dean position, it was with administration’s word that it would soon be turned into a permanent, salaried position. But as December drew to a close, this still had not occurred and her contract was coming to an end. She had already secured a position with a different organization, which was scheduled to start mid-January, but not wanting to leave Dean Etienne to face the start of the new semester alone, Williams offered to stay on for the three weeks between her WAU contract ending and her new job beginning. The school declined the offer, leaving Etienne to fend for herself.

Williams’ last request to administration was to properly renovate the apartment for the next assistant dean. Though it had been repainted and hard flooring installed, it was still in desperate need of further renovations according to Williams, who described it as uninhabitable and says she informed administration that water spots had already begun reforming on the apartment’s ceiling tiles.

This request was ignored, and shortly after Williams’ replacement, Sharnelle Henry, took up residence a few weeks later, the full extent of the issues became glaringly apparent. Within hours of her arrival, a leaking water valve flooded the lower level, including the assistant dean’s apartment. Henry’s email to facilities requests “a dehumidifier, window mesh screens for the windows without them so the windows can be opened, and thorough remediation… I would also like to request a mold assessment of the apartment I am living in.”

She continues, “I am enthused about serving here at WAU and would like to be in the best health possible while doing so. As a person with a history of asthma and allergies, I am having adverse reactions to the conditions in my apartment.”

Emails from parents, already on heightened alert after fall semester, soon followed. “I am hoping you can clarify a few of things for me in light of the recent events at Halcyon Hall,” wrote one parent from Florida. “There have been two situations that occurred since [my] daughter has been there that has me questioning if my daughter's health is at risk,” she said, going on to outline in detail reports from her daughter about both the flood and the mold situation.

According to facilities personnel, the leak was from a fresh water valve, but the parent pushed back on this, stating that the bathroom toilet kept flushing and her daughter’s room smelled of urine. “With all due respect, is a facilities manager qualified to make the determination and deem the area safe and not hazardous to my daughter’s health? Would he/she also know the proper way to sanitize the area and has action been taken to sanitize the area and ensure there is no mold growth?” asked the parent.

She continued her line of questions, writing “Was a qualified flood restoration company called in? Is vacuuming the carpets and placing fans enough to stop mold from forming? The leak was major and I am concerned especially with previous mold issues that it is the perfect recipe for mold to develop. The water was also coming through the floors onto the bottom floor. Will someone be checking the floor/ceiling for potential mold growth?”


The assistant dean’s lower level apartment.


Williams says these ongoing issues demonstrate a “system of neglect” evident throughout the entire campus. “If this university is not shut down, I believe someone is going to lose their life,” she stated during our telephone interview.

Facilities Director Lapham did not respond to my request for comment on this story, but VP Castillo maintains that the university acted promptly and responsibly with the mold situation last school year. “When administration got clear word on what exactly it was, [they] immediately cleared out the dorm.”

“We consider it a miracle,” he continued. “Other schools, [University of Maryland] – College Park had a death. We had a catastrophe happen that wasn’t predictable…but we believe we have dealt with it honestly.”

When asked what steps the university has taken to ensure what happened last school year doesn’t happen again, Castillo said the university is taking a proactive approach, continuing to make updates to Halcyon and other buildings for the students who will begin arriving on August 18 for the start of the new school year. “We’re being very attentive and hyper-vigilant” to the issues, he said.

Several sources dispute that Halcyon is ready for a new crop of residents, and over the past few months Dean Sabrina Etienne, Assistant Dean Sharnelle Henry, and two of the three deans of Morrison Hall (the men’s residence) have all resigned their positions. This currently leaves one dean to manage two residence halls with the new school year just days away.

VP Castillo, who was a pastor at Sligo Seventh-day Adventist Church before accepting the VP of communications role, said that despite the mold crisis, “we believe God really blessed,” and adds that the situation has made no difference on enrollment numbers.

Our discussion then turned to the university’s recently announced plans to purchase the old Washington Adventist Hospital building that is adjacent to the university, despite the financial strain of last year’s mold crisis. Castillo described the purchase as a “massive miracle,” stating that “none of that [purchase] is being paid for with institutional funds” but rather with “no interest loans” and by generous donors.

“Our hope is that we’re doing the best we can with what God has given us,” he concluded.

 

The September 25, 2018 Montgomery County Inspection Report:

A follow-up report by the County dated October 11, 2018, before remediation work had been completed:

 

 

Alisa Williams is managing editor of SpectrumMagazine.org

Main image credit: Google maps. In-line images provided by April Williams.

 

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