Juneau School Board learns more about 12 kids who ingested floor sealant, instead of milk

The Juneau School District Board of Education held a special meeting on Friday afternoon to learn more about an incident that occurred on Tuesday.
Published: Jun. 17, 2022 at 6:01 PM AKDT
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JUNEAU, Alaska (KTUU) - The Juneau School District Board of Education held a special meeting on Friday afternoon to learn more about an incident that occurred on Tuesday with 12 children and two adults ingesting floor sealant at a summer child care program, thinking it was milk.

Representatives from NANA Management Services attended the meeting, including Eric Billingsley, president of the food service subcontractor. He read out a prepared statement, apologizing for the incident.

Billingsley said that NMS has launched its own investigation into the incident and that it’s working with the Juneau School District, Juneau Police Department and state officials. No evidence has emerged that this incident was deliberate.

It was repeatedly stated that there are ongoing investigations taking place, meaning that the whole picture of what happened is not yet known. But Billingsley detailed a series of errors that could have contributed to it.

Firstly, boxes of a white, milky floor sealant were shipped on the same pallet with similar-looking boxes of shelf stable milk. Secondly, the manifest, detailing what was on the pallet, only said that milk was being shipped.

Billingsley said the floor sealant has a detailed warning notification on one side of the box, but it was laid down on that side, meaning the NMS employee who served it didn’t see it. Other smaller warnings on the box weren’t noticed.

The food service subcontractor has a policy to “sample before serving” any food or drinks before they are given to students, but that wasn’t followed on Tuesday, Billingsley said. He explained corrective actions are being implemented by the contractor, including a weekly accountability meeting with employees.

Juneau Superintendent Bridget Weiss said the district would not be using boxes of shelf stable milk for the remainder of the summer program as a precaution. Instead, kids would be served individual boxes of milk to avoid reminders of the incident.

She said on Wednesday that kids who drank the largely odorless sealant had complained that it tasted bad or burned their throats. Two adults then sampled it, showing how similar the substance appears to milk, Weiss explained.

The floor sealant is considered to be a “low-ingestion hazard,” which is typical for chemicals used in schools. Parents of kids who ingested the sealant have reported them feeling symptoms like nausea and headaches.

Kristin Bartlett, a spokesperson for the district, said as of Wednesday evening that all 12 kids had somewhat recovered from ingesting the sealant, and that some had fully recovered. Some had been taken to the hospital or their medical providers for monitoring.

Another frustration for parents was how long it took for the Juneau School District to reach out and tell them their children had inadvertently ingested a chemical used to seal floor tiles. Several called in to Friday’s meeting and reported only being told hours after the incident or that they learned about it from other parents.

“The district is examining emergency communication protocols for quicker parent notification. Similar protocols for emergency communications that are used during the school year will be implemented for summer programs,” Bartlett said.

Several parents called and spoke about the importance of the RALLY summer child care program for their kids, especially as they work full time. Some reported that their kids are feeling anxious or that they’ve been nervous to eat meals.

Autumn Baldwin, a parent of one of the kids who ingested the sealant, described it as “an awful situation” and that she had asked herself how something like this could happen. She echoed other parents who are skeptical about sending their kids back to the program.

“I don’t know if he’ll ever be comfortable coming back,” Baldwin said about her son.

Board members voted to hear options for a separate third-party investigation of the incident. Emil Mackey, a school board member, argued that Juneau is a small town and that an independent study of what happened could avoid appearances of conflicts of interest.

The board is also debating whether to renew the contract for NANA Management Services to continue serving food to Juneau students after the current contract ends on June 30. A final decision was not made on Friday with board members saying they wanted to hear more about the investigation before making a decision.

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