Town has lingering questions about students' deaths

Wednesday, May 15, 2002

ENOLA, Pa. -- As a Pennsylvania school district tries to settle whether the deaths of six students since December are connected, Dawn Batdorf is anxious for reassurance.

Her 13-year-old daughter Jessica collapsed April 22 while walking to her homeroom with friends at East Pennsboro Middle School and died at a hospital. The coroner's office has not ruled on the cause of death.

Like many others in the small community, Batdorf wants to know if environmental problems are to blame.

Although the deaths have involved students of varying ages and different causes, and state environmental tests have found no link, questions have persisted.

"There are a lot of kids who come down to our house, and they're afraid to go to school," said Batdorf, 36, whose daughter Heather, 15, is still enrolled in the district. "I don't want my daughter going to school. They should close it while the testing is being done just to make sure the kids are safe."

State epidemiologists this week plan to begin reviewing the health records of Jessica and five other students who have died in the 2,800-student East Pennsboro Area School District. Records for students who have visited the nurse's office also will be examined.

The first three students to die, in December and January, had all suffered from life-threatening illnesses. But three others who have died in the past two weeks all had been apparently healthy.

The state Health Department has recommended that the district hire an environmental testing company, and the school board is expected to consider proposals from at least three firms on May 20.

"I know that the board and the administration are very concerned about assuring the public we've been doing everything we can. We don't want to leave any stone unturned," said Helen Belsak, a spokeswoman for the district.

'Not that unusual'

In the meantime, school attendance has remained about normal for May, Belsak said.

A freight distribution rail yard is the only heavy industry in this quiet, middle-class town of 19,000 just across the Susquehanna River from Harrisburg.

Dr. Bela Matyas, assistant epidemiologist with the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, said six deaths in a community the size of East Pennsboro is not as unusual as it might seem.

"There are situations where you could have a car accident that could kill five or six high school students. If you look at death as an endpoint, the number of deaths is unfortunately not that unusual," Matyas said. "It's tempting to try to draw a link because they're all young, and because we don't expect so many rare events in one place."

Lifelong resident Joanne Braugher, 61, remembered when a farm formerly occupied the land where the high school was built about 40 years ago. She does not believe it was treated with "anything stronger than manure."

"My heart goes out to these families, but I really think this is a sad coincidence" said Braugher, a circulation assistant at the library. "Maybe I'd feel differently if I had a child in the district."

The other students who died are: Breanna Nicole Santiago, 5, a kindergartner who had a rare lung disorder and underwent a double lung transplant; Lee Umbenhauer, 18, who had a rare form of cancer; Chris Shamansky, 16, who died of heart abnormalities two days after he collapsed during track practice; Jimmy Henry, 17, who died of an aneurysm; and Tiffanie Salvadia, 16, who died of ovarian cancer.

Tiffanie's mother, Deneen Gethouas, has mixed feelings about the epidemiological investigation.

"I think it's a good idea, because I worry about the other children," said Gethouas, 38. "But I kind of have mixed emotions about it ... how guilty am I, because I let her go there?"

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