CLEVELAND, OH (WOIO) - Benjamin Franklin Elementary School is 92 years old. During the Cold War, the basement served as a bomb shelter in case of nuclear attack. Two years ago, Cleveland schools invited the media to Ben Franklin to show off a $10,000 cafeteria makeover sponsored by a national TV show.
But, across from the basement cafeteria, there's another room the district's administration doesn't want you to see. In fact, they refused to allow Carl Monday's cameras inside. However, Chief Investigator Carl Monday has obtained pictures and public records that point to a major problem that has been ignored for years.
Photos obtained by Monday show a storage room that was doubling as a classroom for students with disabilities. Two, sometimes three first and third graders have spent most of the school year along with a teacher and a teacher's aide isolated in a room with little natural light. The room was so cold, students wore coats in class. There is chipping paint on the walls and a plastic bucket catches what's dripping from a leaky, first-floor toilet.
Carl Monday took his findings to Tammie Sebastian with The Ohio Coalition for Education of Children with Disabilities.
"This is just. Wow. I wasn't expecting that. I've seen a lot. I've never seen anything like this," said Sebastian in reaction to the photos.
But it's not just students with disabilities who use the basement. Some 600 others visit the cafeteria, along with a computer lab, band and art rooms. All of the rooms are in an area of the school fire inspectors said has "imminent life safety issues."
Monday's investigation found those issues were ignored for months and in some cases, years. Sept. 10, 2015, Cleveland Fire Marshal Michael Dziak sent a letter to Ben Franklin principal Rachel Snider, assuring her that "no violations were observed" during the start of the school year inspection.
It's the same day a city fire inspector filed an inspection report that noted the basement has only one hallway for students to escape. The inspector warned, "in the event of an electrical fire, there's a good potential for charging the basement hallways with smoke and fumes." The inspector added "the basement was designated as a bomb and tornado shelter. It was good for keeping bombs and tornadoes out, bad for getting children out in a fire."
But students continued to use the basement classrooms, even after the same inspector re-inspected the school three months later. The inspector found the school in violation for "inadequate emergency egress or escape, and access to the basement classrooms, an outdated alarm system, and missing or inoperable smoke doors and boiler room doors." These were safety issues fire inspectors previously warned school officials about, during earlier inspections as far back as 1987. The inspector concluded, "I do not believe any children should be in these rooms."
Carl Monday spoke with Cleveland Fire Department spokesman Larry Gray about the conditions at Ben Franklin Elementary School. Monday asked Gray why the children remained in the classrooms for months after the report was completed.
"I didn't see the report from last year and I would have to get with inspector that did that report. But I'm sure we made recommendations," said Gray.
Monday wanted to know if any of those recommendations were followed at Ben Franklin Elementary. He made several requests for an interview with Principal Snider. His request was denied by communications officer Roseann Canfora, who told Cleveland 19 News, "we will not gr ant an interview for a Carl Monday investigation ever again." Canfora cited her displeasure with a previous Carl Monday investigation.
Weeks earlier, on April 2, Monday made a public records request to the fire department for the school's inspection records. Apparently, he got the Fire Marshal's attention.
Just days later, he fired off a certified violation notice to Cleveland School CEO, Eric Gordon. After reviewing its previous inspections, the fire department decided Ben Franklin Elementary should be cited for six building and fire code violations, including: "excessive and improper storage of combustible
material in the basement corridors, fire and boiler room doors missing or not maintained, and no sprinkler system in the basement."
After an April 28 follow-up inspection by the fire department, school administration began correcting the violations that should have been corrected years ago.
Art and music classes have now been moved out of the basement to another floor.
The cafeteria and computer rooms will remain open, but only after the school agreed to assign a fire watch monitor to the basement. All other violations have been corrected, except the basement sprinkler system, which could be installed before the next school year.
As for the children with disabilities who were banished to the basement storage room, Monday has been told they've also been relocated to a room on the second floor where some, like Tammie Sebastian, say they should have been in the first place.
"I don't know how a child could learn in this environment," Sebastian said. "I don't know how anyone could think this is OK for one second. It's awful. Awful."
Download the Cleveland 19 News app.