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Letter shows Hazelwood School District knew of radioactive testing request at Jana Elementary property since 2016

All of the Hazelwood School Board members, except the president, decided to not tell parents in a July meeting.

ST. LOUIS COUNTY, Mo. — The Parent Teacher Association (PTA) President for Jana Elementary School, Ashley Bernaugh, and the entire school association are demanding transparency from the United States Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) and the Hazelwood School District (HSD).

This is after she has spent years asking for answers.

On Monday, the USACE started sampling inside and outside of the school after an independent report found high levels of radioactive contamination at the school.

The engineers will be sampling structure surveys and grabbing soil samples for the next few days.

Preliminary results of testing will be available within the next two weeks.

As far as students, almost all of them have gone virtual and the PTA's goal is to find another space.

"We want to remain together as a community," she said. 

Bernaugh said they have been looking for options and found two within the HSD.

However, Bernaugh said she has asked the board and district leaders to meet with the PTA.

She claims that request has been declined.

In the meantime, Bernaugh continues to advocate.

"We cannot have our kids get sick just because we didn't do the due diligence when we had the chance," she said. 

5 On Your Side obtained a 'Right of Entry' letter from February 2016.

The letter was a request from the USACE to the HSD asking the district if they could test on school property for contamination.

There was no request to test inside of Jana.

The assistant superintendent signed off on it, acknowledging and permitting access to the property.

"I was told testing had been done and didn't have results for Jana," Bernaugh said. "So, in 2018...when I saw their trucks there...I knew they should have results or have them quickly."

Since then, she claims there hasn't been any communication from the school district to parents. 

She believes some sort of information should have been sent, so guardians could make a decision.

Bernaugh said each parent deserves to make their own choices. But they must be informed choices.

Six years later in January 2022, the USACE shared results and told the district, there were low levels of radioactive contamination located on the banks of the creek, which is on the edge of Jana's property boundary. 

The letter also said the contamination did not pose an immediate risk.

"Just because something is low level, doesn't make it less bomb waste material!" Bernaugh said. 

"The 2022 report is the first that was ever made noting any contamination, although that report also noted that the contamination levels found did not pose immediate risk to human health," a HSD spokesperson said.

These results were also discussed at July's school board meeting.

There were some discussions to put up signs near the creek and potentially having a workshop or town hall to share this information from agencies like the USACE and the Missouri Coalition for the Environment (MCE).

"I don't see a necessity...but I don't have a problem with it," a Hazelwood school board member said.

However, after some discussion -- all of the board members except the president -- decided to not tell parents.

HSD Board of Education President Betsy Rachel said it's irresponsible to not at least inform our families that the USACE said we found this radioactive waste on your property.

"It's okay that everyone else disagrees with me," Rachel said. "I can accept the will of the board, but I need to be on record with my own personal feelings about that because I feel very strongly about it."

Another board member said she respected Rachel's opinion but believes the priority at the time was to prepare for school to open back up.

"I feel that it is irresponsible for us to enter into this discussion without having a clear plan for how we can respond and manage all of the needs of our constituents...whether it be students who currently attend Jana or students who may be slated to attend Jana," the board member said. "For me, that's a missing piece and so I want to be on the record in saying that."

That's when Bernaugh decided to blow the whistle.

Jana PTA leadership sent a letter to members on July 25. She sent the information of the findings to the wider PTA family in the Hazelwood School District on July 29.  

After that, HSD sent a letter to parents in August.

Bernaugh admits, this could have taken a different course.

"If we had this information in 2018, we could have made better choices," she said. "We have lives that are counting on us to get this right."

5 On Your Side has asked for numerous requests for interviews and more information pertaining to this issue from HSD and USACE.

We have not heard back.

This is a developing story. 5 On Your Side will update this story as soon as information becomes available.


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