published Friday, November 11th, 2011

Unsafe Marion County Academy hosted students for years despite violations

Marion County Academy, a school housing Alternative Education and Behavior Management classes. Courtesy Tennessee Fire Marshal's Office
Marion County Academy, a school housing Alternative Education and Behavior Management classes. Courtesy Tennessee Fire Marshal's Office
Photo by WRCB-TV Channel 3 /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

A Marion County, Tenn., school believed by state fire inspectors to be closed for a decade because of serious fire code and asbestos violations actually has remained open and occupied by students, a state report shows.

Officials with the state's Division of Fire Inspection visited Marion County Academy, an alternative school in Jasper, on Oct. 14 after receiving an email complaint. Fire marshals found students occupying the unsafe building, which they believed had been closed since 2001.

Marion school officials acknowledged the problems and said they have moved the students out of the building.

"We're not taking exception to any one of those issues," school board Chairman Jim Postman said. "We're taking those and we will address every page of that if we want to go back into the facility. We're going to move forward and go on."

The fire marshal's October report said the building hasn't been inspected by fire officials since the school, formerly Jasper Elementary, was emptied after a new elementary school was built.

"Furthermore, the fire code deficiencies that were listed in inspection reports prior to July 5, 2011, have not been corrected and still remain present in the facility," the report stated.

That includes problems with emergency lighting, sprinkler systems, exit signs, the fire alarm system, use of kerosene heaters and corridors being used for storage. The report also pointed to many wiring and electrical issues that could cause fires.

One hallway is blocked off because of an asbestos abatement area, which creates a dangerous 76-foot dead end, according to the report.

Postman said students were pulled from the school, which houses the district's alternative, special education and adult education programs. Students moved into Jasper Middle School and Marion County High School, he said.

The board will decide whether to repair the problems or permanently move the students, he said.

Postman said he wasn't sure how many students had been in the building or when they moved into it.

But Times Free Press archives show the school board voted in 2004 to open Marion Academy as a virtual school inside the former Jasper Elementary. Some students were subject to asbestos and other safety violations for years.

So far, who's responsible for the oversight is unclear.

Postman said he believed the fire marshal made regular inspections "from time to time" and that inspections had continued at Marion Academy.

"I assume they looked at the school," he said.

But after ordering the building be vacated, state officials seemed to place blame on the school system.

"According to the State Fire Marshal Office records," wrote Deputy State Fire Marshal Angela Lundberg in the report, "the school district has failed to comply with their Plan of Corrective Action by closing the school and the building has been altered from the original structure without submitting plans to the State Fire Marshal's Office for approval."

about Kevin Hardy...

Kevin rejoined the Times Free Press in August 2011 as the Southeast Tennessee K-12 education reporter. He worked as an intern in 2009, covering the communities of Signal Mountain, Red Bank, Collegedale and Lookout Mountain, Tenn. A native Kansan, Kevin graduated with bachelor's degrees in journalism and sociology from the University of Kansas. After graduating, he worked as an education reporter in Hutchinson, Kan., for a year before coming back to Chattanooga. Honors include a ...

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ldurham said...

It must not be too dangerous, if they've had school there for all these years, and nothing has happened. Have there been any unusual illnesses among the children who have attended there? Members of the staff have worked there for many years, and they seem fine.

November 11, 2011 at 6:36 a.m.
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