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Students return to Johnson Junior High after mercury contamination

As students resumed classes Tuesday, parents at Johnson Junior High School expressed confidence that their children faced no additional threat of exposure after a mercury contamination prompted a campus closure since last week.

But families remained frustrated with what they described as too little information from the Clark County School District, which is investigating when and how a quarter-cup of mercury arrived on the campus.

“Who brought it?” asked Amanda Aguilar, who stood on the school’s lawn after walking her sixth-grade daughter onto the campus, at 7701 Ducharme Ave., near Buffalo and Alta drives.

“I want to know if that student is going to be suspended or expelled, because he put every student’s life in danger,” Aguilar said.

After the first bell rang at 8:30 a.m., Principal George Anas allowed reporters into Johnson to view a 30-foot-by-30-foot portion of the gymnasium floor that crews had removed Monday night. They also removed two 10-foot-by-20-foot carpet tile areas at the main entrances of the gym.

An official with the Environmental Protection Agency said Monday that mercury vapor levels at least 10 to 15 times above a federally determined safety limit were concentrated in the gym and locker rooms.

Mike Barton, the district’s chief student achievement officer, told reporters Tuesday that police continued investigating who brought the substance to campus.

“Preliminary reports are leading to the student factor,” Barton said.

With an enrollment of 1,320 students, attendance for the day reached 98.4 percent, according to the district. Average daily attendance at Johnson was 95 percent in 2014-15, the latest figures available.

A teacher discovered the substance during a school assembly Wednesday, prompting a campus lockdown and screening of nearly 1,500 people for contamination. Families waited in the parking lot through Thursday morning before EPA crews cleared their children to leave safely.

The district has not decided how students will recover the lost class time after shutting down Johnson for three full days, but Barton said he is working with the Nevada Department of Education to determine what flexibility it has to make up the time.

Before classes started Tuesday, parents mostly stayed in their cars and watched their children walk into Johnson. Many said they understood the district took precautionary measures to protect their students but hoped for more information throughout the week.

“There’s lots of questions to be answered,” said Rebecca Bernal, adding she wasn’t nervous about sending her eighth-grade daughter back to school.

However, “my daughter’s a cancer survivor and one of the parents told (administrators) his son brought the mercury last Friday,” Bernal said. “My daughter was here that day and then Tuesday and then they discovered it Wednesday, so she brought it to the house for sure.”

As of Wednesday, the EPA had destroyed 53 items, including 27 backpacks, that students had left at the campus for inspection.

The EPA also visited and inspected at least 80 homes of students, not including Bernal’s. One home was vacated and the family — two adults and two children — was asked to temporarily locate.

Crews began cleaning that property Tuesday and should finish removing carpet Wednesday, said Rusty Harris-Bishop, a spokesman for the agency.

“That will be the conclusion of our work,” he said, adding that six more homes were inspected Tuesday. “Only this one was contaminated.”

District officials could not estimate the total cost of the decontamination efforts and planned restoration of the gym.

Anas, the principal, shared one message for parents who had lingering concerns.

“We are safe. We are healthy,” he said. “They need to understand that I value their children just like if they were mine. They’re all my kids. All 1,320 of them.”

Contact Neal Morton at nmorton@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0279. Find @nealtmorton on Twitter.

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