Frank P. Long film premieres
Theresa Palermo, a retired teacher from Frank P. Long Intermediate School, gives a tour with her cell phone of each classroom where teachers have contracted cancer and, in some cases, have died. This is the opening to “Sick School,” a documentary film by Keif Roberts, which premiered at the Boys and Girls Club in Bellport on Saturday.
To a packed house, the film showed a dark and impactful story about a community fighting for the health of students, teachers and residents. The film centers around the landfill and its effects on the environment, but also the fight to close the school after a higher-than-average cancer rate had been discovered.
Rumors were spread saying that current teachers were asked not to attend the screening, but a union official said she was “unaware” of such a request. Superintendent Joseph Giani said the rumors “are simply not true.” But the same union rep said, “[I] can understand why teachers may have been concerned about going to the screening.”
Parents interviewed in the film, next to their children, articulated how they had always come home sick or with some kind of ailment. For Skye, a former student at Frank P. Long, it was headaches that prevented her from participating in sports and other activities.
“I never had a migraine until I started at Frank P. Long,” she said in the film.
Parents reported that their students were fine at home and when school was out, prompting them to believe something was wrong at school. Teachers also said they had been sending kids to the nurse a lot.
On the teacher side, Palermo is the only survivor of four teachers who contracted lung cancer while working at the school. She doesn’t smoke and never did, but in 2005 she was diagnosed with a tumor the size of a softball, she said, which required doctors to remove her entire lung. She was out of work for five months.
Subjects in the film, which also included Adrienne Esposito, executive director of Citizens Campaign for the Environment, criticized the way testing and response was handled by officials, calling it government protecting government. They also considered it an attack on the community itself, where residents deal with the same health issues and unpleasant odors every day.
“They’re not putting a 276-foot mountain of garbage in a rich community on the North Shore of Long Island, are they?” Esposito said in the film.
The film also took a look at conversations with the school board last year, which included a plan to close Frank P. Long and relocate. There were also discussions with then-Assemb. Dean Murray for a plan to relocate to a vacant school in Sachem. The board decided against this, citing the test results, which indicated that the indoor air was adequate for a school. In October 2018, Giani reiterated this view while preparing to unveil the school’s new courtyard.
“Our board of education was committed to ensuring this school was safe for both students and staff, so they authorized and fully funded the most comprehensive environmental investigation done at a school in New York State,” he said.
Subjects in the film pushed back on the studies done, saying that air testing was done when kids were not in school or when the wind was not blowing from the direction of the landfill. Results of testing are available on the district website.
In addition to the screening, there was a Q&A held with audience members and subjects of the film, including Palermo, Esposito and parents. A lawsuit was filed in 2018 with 25 plaintiffs against the town for both the nuisance and health issues caused by the landfill. Audience members brought up the effect the landfill has had on the community outside of the school and there were also representatives from Northport, who have been fighting with the state and the school district about toxic materials under school grounds that have been causing illness in teachers and students.
The film did not include interviews with Murray or school officials or members of the board of education, who were also not present at the screening. Roberts is looking at ways to broadcast the film at alternate locations, but it is unclear where it will be able to be viewed at this time.
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