‘Our school smells like poop,’ teachers call for help

Inside Dearborn STEM Academy, a $73-million “state-of-the-art facility” that opened in Roxbury in 2018, a “lingering and powerful sewage smell” is wreaking havoc on classes, causing students and teachers to feel ill.

“To be transparent, it is the smell of human waste so our school smells like poop,” said Steven Benjamin, a middle school reading specialist and special education teacher.

Benjamin and a pair of colleagues brought the odor, which one of them described as smelling like a “deceased animal,” to light during a School Committee meeting this week as they called on district leadership to step forward to make the miserable experience go away.

The teachers shared their stories the same night that the committee advanced the district’s $1.5 billion budget proposal for next fiscal year. The budget includes a controversial swath of staffing and programming cuts called out by parents and educators.

Dearborn opened to great fanfare in 2018, with the grade 6-12 early college academy marking the first new school construction project in 15 years at the time in the district. Officials hailed the 128,000-square-foot facility in Roxbury’s Nubian Square as a model for future projects.

But for Benjamin’s third-floor classroom to be usable, the door needs to be fully open at all times, an air purifier running with the ionizer on, and windows open which he said resembles the “COVID days.”

Recently, Benjamin said he left for lunch and closed the door, leaving the air purifier running – a step that was not enough to prevent the smell from getting out of hand.

“A half hour later,” he said, “I got back with my students and the smell had built back up and was so foul that they refused to stay in the room, and I couldn’t blame them because it just wasn’t habitable.”

Benjamin taught his students in the hallway before they relocated elsewhere as the smell traveled outside the classroom. It took about 45 minutes for the smell to dissipate, he said.

“To be clear, I am not complaining about my school-based custodial and leadership teams,” Benjamin said. “They’ve both been very supportive and responsive. They’ve tried onsite fixes, they’ve communicated to facilities through the proper channels.

“I totally understand that plumbing issues are probably really complicated, cannot be fixed right away,” he added, “but this issue has been present the whole year, and we don’t have a permanent fix yet.”

Officials highlighted the school, before its opening, as being outfitted with flexible indoor and outdoor learning classrooms, two fabrication labs, a dance studio, a gymnasium, 3D printers, a media center, and laser die cutters as tools.

The facility — with about $37 million of the cost reimbursed by the Massachusetts School Building Authority — was the culmination of six years of planning, design and construction, officials praised.

With open, spacious classrooms, the building resembles a college facility and was designed to support the learning that happens inside with its focus on computer science, engineering, health and life sciences and college readiness.

Dearborn features a STEM Tech Career Academy that enables high schoolers to earn associate’s degrees and credentials in a six-year program focusing on science, technology, engineering, and math fields.

As a tenth-grade science teacher, Julia Kiely said her experience with the stench is even more profound.

Kiely’s second-floor room has seven sinks and two floor drains underneath a safety shower. She said colleagues discovered the stench emanating from the drains and “recommended the flushing of the drains with water somewhat regularly since the great volume of drains and pipes in my room increase the likelihood of my room experiencing the smell.

“Unfortunately, this is a bigger task than anticipated,” Kiely added. “The smell is so bad that students say they cannot learn in my classroom, they refuse to enter, and they spray perfumes and Febreze constantly which can further irritate sensitive noses, and they’ll cough and wince throughout class.”

The odor smells the worst on Mondays and Tuesdays after the drains dry up over the weekend, Kiely said. For it to dissipate, she said she runs all seven sinks between 10 and 20 minutes while filling 1,000 milliliters of water and pouring them over the drains constantly.

“The smell is unacceptable for student learning and my teaching,” Kiely said. “It is so intense that students say they can taste it.”

School Committee Vice Chairman Michael O’Neill is calling for action to be taken as soon as possible, and the timeline in solving the issue to be expedited.

“I hope we’re going to get some very professional plumbers out to a (new) building – a matter of fact, let’s get the contractors who built the building out there – and find out what the heck is going on there,” he told Superintendent Mary Skipper, in her second year of running the nearly 46,000-student district.

Officials have created a project group that has begun looking into the issue, Skipper said, adding Dearborn staff were slated to be updated on the plan by the end of the week.

“We are working, and we have to do testing and when we do the testing it has to be when no one is in the building,” she said. “There is a full group that is on this issue and are aware of this issue.”

A district spokesperson did not provide the Herald further information on Friday, with schools closed in observance of Good Friday.

Low concentrations of “sewer gas,” or hydrogen sulfide, can cause irritated eyes, nose, throat, and respiratory system, while moderate concentrations may lead to headache, dizziness, nausea, vomiting, according to Omega, an environmental management and hazardous materials consulting firm.

High concentrations may cause shock, convulsions, inability to breathe, rapid unconsciousness, coma, and even death, the firm states.

Carolyn Sesser, a Dearborn high school health teacher, also deals with the smell, and in some cases, students refuse to walk down the hallway to get to her first-floor classroom. She said the scent is not constant but one that pops up multiple times a day a week, and the exact timing is unpredictable.

“We know that our administration and custodian teams have already looked into this problem and have done all they can,” Sesser said. “At this point, there needs to be something done at the district level to address it.”

Dearborn STEM Academy is located at 36 Winthrop Street in Roxbury. (Libby O'Neill/Boston Herald)
Dearborn STEM Academy in Roxbury is dealing with an odor that is disrupting classes. (Libby O’Neill/Boston Herald)

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