A little known group of teachers, union representatives and parents of school children called the Asbestos Council, has met twice a month since its inception in March to monitor the district’s asbestos program with no attention from the press. But when the Council and staff members met July 23rd with Tom Sammon, executive assistant to the superintendent of schools, and Eduardo Escobedo, head of general services, the superintendent’s stuffy little conference room was packed with television cameras and reporters from just about every major news outlet in town.
Suddenly, asbestos in the schools is big news. The Chronicle and Examiner have run several front-page stories on the problem, and all three TV news shows in the city have given it extensive coverage. KRON’s NewsCenter 4 alone has aired six segments on the problem in the past week.
KRON Reporter Emil Guillermo presented detailed, hard-hitting stories outlining the extent of the potential hazards the substance poses to district students and staff, and forced top district officials to acknowledge that they had misjudged the situation in the past and allowed it to continue unabated.
Overall, however, the rash of news stories have provided very little information that wasn’t published in the Bay Guardian seven months ago. Back in January and February, the rest of the local media, with the exception of KKCY radio and the San Francisco Progress, seemed remarkably uninterested in asbestos in the schools. (Only KKCY even mentioned during the recent rush of reports that the Bay Guardian had broken the story in January).
And even today, with the exception of KRON, none of the newspapers or broadcast outlets with a newfound interest in the crisis have sought to explain why the school district allowed the asbestos problem to go unacknowledged and unabated for so many years — and who is to blame.
The rash of mainstream news reports, however, does raise an interesting question. For months, top school officials, including Superintendent Ramon Cortines and Escobedo, who directly oversees the school district’s facilities, have sought to downplay the extent of the problem. Although district consultants and some staff have recommended that several schools be shut down and fully cleaned up before students are allowed back, only in July did Cortines decide to close McAteer High School. In recent interviews, the superintendent has still dismissed the staff, students and media concerns as “asbestosphobia.”When the Bay Guardian first warned of the serious and pressing asbestos danger, school administrators and some Board members accused the paper of “scare tactics” and “journalistic misrepresentation.” Now that just about every news outlet in town has confirmed our reports, will the district begin to change its tune?*