Small pieces of a cellulose-type material on the concrete ceilings in Southeast Missouri State University's Dearmont residence hall have been falling for at least a decade.
It's gotten in students' hair and on their clothes.
But school officials say removing the cotton-looking material would be expensive and unwise at a time when the administration is deciding whether to make major improvements to the 46-year-old building or to raze it.
Dr. Dennis Holt, vice president of administration and enrollment management, said it would cost an estimated half a million dollars to scrape off all the material and substitute some other sound-proofing material.
The ceiling problem has so upset Charlene Latham that she has refused so far to pay her more than $3,000 in room and board for this fall semester. School officials say she'll have to pay up soon or risk being evicted.
School officials have offered to allow her to move into another residence hall, provided that Latham pays the added cost of such a room. The least expensive rooms on campus are in Dearmont.
Latham turned down the offer, saying she didn't want to pay a higher room charge.
Latham, a 23-year-old freshman from Chicago, Ill., said she used to wake up in the morning to find her purple sheets covered with little pieces of the white material.
She claims the falling fibers caused her skin to itch. She said she often woke up coughing.
But university officials say the ceiling material doesn't contain asbestos or mold and doesn't pose a health risk to students.
"If there were health risks, we would shut it down immediately," Holt said.
But Latham isn't convinced.
She has gone so far as to cover the ceiling of her private room with cut-up plastic trash bags taped together. Southeast's facilities management department provided her with the duct tape, she said.
The makeshift barrier has kept the debris from falling down on her, she said.
School officials, Latham said, suggested she nail up sheets to cover the ceiling.
Holt said some students have relied on sheets as a barrier, but they haven't complained to school officials like Latham has.
"Most of the students in Dearmont are quite happy," said Holt. "This is an exceptional instance."
But Latham isn't alone in her unhappiness with the ceiling debris.
"It fell on me the other day," said student Keiara Lash of Madisonville, Ky., as she stood in her dorm room Thursday morning.
Lindsey Knoll, a freshman from St. Louis, talked about the problem as she rested on the top bunk in her dorm room.
"It falls on me all the time," she said. "I am worried it will get in my mouth."
Jessica Aubuchon, a freshman from Silex, Mo., said the material collects dirt. That's especially true around the ceiling fans in the hallways, she said.
"I think it is disgusting," she said.
Debbie Below, director of enrollment management at Southeast, admits that the material isn't pretty.
"I think aesthetically students would like to see us remove it," she said, "but I don't believe it is causing a health problem."
Dearmont currently is the only residence hall at Southeast that has the material on its ceilings, Below said.
Scott Meyer, director of facilities management, said the acoustic material was added to the concrete ceilings in the 1980s. The university has tried vacuuming it, but that only caused more of the material to break apart and fall down, he said.
So far, Meyer said his department hasn't found any paint or other material that could be applied to keep the ceiling material in place.
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