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Monday, July 20, 2009

Aberdeen Student Airs Central's Bad Air

It takes guts for a high school administration to throw their support behind a good debate program. Principals and superintendents know that, for all the unparalleled educational benefits a good debate program delivers, it also trains kids to speak out publicly and speak out well against injustice anywhere... including in their own schools.

Today's cheer for debaters engaging in civic activism is a shout-out to Aberdeen, where Richard Marmorstein, Central HS senior and Nationals-qualifying debater, puts his training to work to create Aberdeen Orchestra Defense, a website documenting air quality troubles in the high school orchestra room and calling on parents and the community at large to rally to action.

According to the website, students and teachers have noticed a strange smell in the Central HS orchestra room since fall 2007. The director, Dan Witte, actually became ill on several occasions, and found that if he left the orchestra room, he recovered. Quite logically, Witte moved orchestra rehearsal to the theater.

The school responded by testing the air in April and August of 2008. Writes Marmorstein, "Though none of the contaminants tested for were determined to be at an unacceptable level, the tests still strongly indicated potential problems with the air control system." The school administration first ordered the orchestra back into the orchestra room, then decided the problem wasn't the air but the teacher. Superintendent Dr. Gary Harms transferred Witte to the middle school... at least until some parents raised a ruckus and got him brought back to the high school.

A winter 2009 round of air tests showed the air quality in the orchestra room did indeed violate EPA standards. The school board has ordered some preventive measures, like requiring garbage and delivery trucks to keep their distance from the building during class time so their fumes aren't drawn into the school ventilation system, but the board won't be spending any money on filtering or other upgrades to the ventilation system yet. The school will keep testing, but they are also sending Witte and his students back into that classroom come fall.

Marmorstein is reasonably uncomfortable with sending a good director and musicians in as canaries in the coal mine, and he's putting the Web to work to call for action. He offers an archive of Aberdeen American News articles on the issue. He's built a discussion forum to encourage public conversation. And he's doing it all with free tools, using 000webhost.com's hosting service. If you can make it to the library and log onto a computer, you too can be an activist: that's why I love the Internet.

There's definitely a debate to be had over this issue. Aberdonians, one of your best and brightest is calling you to conversation and action. Get to it!

By the way, you can tell Marmorstein is a Lincoln-Douglas debater, as he invokes Martin Luther King Jr.'s line about injustice anywhere threatening justice everywhere. Good quote!


  1. The press accounts suggest that Mr. Witte's transfer to the middle school was proposed, not carried through.

    However, the incident reveals something about the state of the education bureaucracy in Aberdeen--and in general. For those who think the solution to education's shortcomings lies in the power to fire teachers at will, this incident gives a glimpse into what it means to have school administrators who like to call themselves CEOs.

    I also wonder where the teachers union is on this. Their contract must have some articles on working conditions.

    As far as the matter of air is concerned, that has been a persistent problem with the new high school. The air conditioners are so loud that the neighbors have complained and a sound-dampening structure had to be built over them. But Aberdeen Central is just one of many, many buildings where bad air has caused illness. Modern air circulation systems have some problems that engineers just can't seem to get their minds around. If we have spectrometers that can identify the drugs in a pill, one would think an air sample would not pose such an insurmountable problem.

  2. First of all, thank you Mr. Heidelberger for the kind link, the extra traffic means a _lot_. I can't thank you enough.

    To clarify, the transfer was ordered, and Mr. Witte did pack his things to go to the middle school, but he was given a couple of days to do so and the public reaction within that time convinced the administration to reconsider. If memory serves, he was absent from class for one or two days as a result of the transfer, but he never actually began teaching at the middle school.

  3. Thanks to you, Richard, for taking a public stand about an important issue. Civic engagement is exactly what we're supposed to use all that debate training for. Keep us posted!


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