$21 million lawsuit filed over alleged North black mold; Tuesday test results show no more airborne spores

Rick Wagner • Feb 19, 2019 at 6:09 PM

KINGSPORT — Follow-up tests at Sullivan North High/Middle School turned up no airborne toxic “black mold” spores where they had been found last week, Sullivan County Director of Schools Evelyn Rafalowski said Tuesday evening.

However, former North High School career technical education teacher Michael Upchurch said Tuesday evening he has filed a $21 million lawsuit against Sullivan County Schools for mold exposure he alleges put him in the hospital last year, using Kingsport attorney Kyle Vaughn, who could not be reached for comment Tuesday evening.

The suit filed Tuesday afternoon in Sullivan County Circuit Court seeks $3 million in compensatory damages and $18 million in punitive damages. It names the Sullivan County Department of Education, current and former North principals Josh Davis and Brent Palmer, Rafalowski and maintenance supervisor Charlie Hubbard.

Tests done Monday found no black mold in four rooms at North where Wingfield Environmental tests last week found nine mold spores among the four rooms, Rafalowski said. Remediation was done in the four classrooms, which included the North band room where one spore was detected. Wingfield also did recent airborne mold tests at Indian Springs Elementary after mold concerns there, but in test results no airborne spores turned up there.

“I just got a call from Jimmy Wingfield,” Rafalowski said by phone Tuesday. “Everything has come back clean.” 

Upchurch, reached by phone Tuesday evening, said he filed the paperwork for the lawsuit with Vaughn on Tuesday and it should be served on the school system Wednesday. Upchurch said he personally took ceiling tiles from North to a testing facility, where he said testing showed it had Stachybotrys chartarum or black mold.

He said the roof at North has leaked since it was completed in 1980 and that his heart rate would go up while in the building and that he broke out like a former Indian Springs Elementary student, daughter of Juanita Larkins Housewright did. The girl later died. Housewright has alleged the school system is covering up black mold at Indian Springs, and Upchurch said he brought his story forward after reading about Housewright’s daughter and other students having issues at Indian Springs. He also said North students have had breathing and sinus issues he attributes to black mold exposure.

“I went and signed everything today. I guess it will be served tomorrow,” Upchurch said of the lawsuit “about this coverup” of what he called a long-time issue at North.

“You can’t remediate mold until you fix that leaky roof,” Upchurch said. “The truth will come out.”

He said the county has had his documentation of mold in the building for a year and said Wingfield “suppressed half of his report from my attorney last year in my worker’s comp claim.” Upchurch said he was out sick much of last school year but returned this school year, only to have symptoms reoccur. He resigned last week after talking with Rafalowski.

As for why a high school basketball tournament was allowed to be held at North over the weekend, Board of Education Chairman Michael Hughes and Rafalowski said the four classrooms that tested positive for mold were not in the gym area and that remediation already had occurred and been completed by Friday evening. No school was held there Thursday or Friday.

Blountville-based Wingfield Environmental conducted 113 tests at the school on Feb. 9. Of those 113, Rafalowski said, one microscopic black mold spore was found in Room 901, the band room; four spores in band practice room 3, one spore in a storage room behind Room 803 and three spores in Room 227. Another vendor, SERVPRO of Kingsport/Bristol, conducted relative humidity and moisture tests on Feb. 11 and found nothing amiss.

SERVPRO did remediation Thursday and Friday after the mold tests came back positive, and then Wingfield tested again Monday, with the results sent to Rafalowski on Tuesday evening.

Hughes declined to comment on the lawsuit; Rafalowski couldn’t be reached for comment Tuesday evening. 

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