Asbestos on Campus

Broken down and discolored pipes in a Dudley Lawrence dorm room. Photo credit: Andrea Cantor

Broken down and discolored pipes in a Dudley Lawrence dorm room. Photo credit: Andrea Cantor

SLC students undergo a good deal of stress, affected by everything from conference papers to extra-curricular commitments. Sometimes, the saving grace is getting some sleep, even if it’s a quick catnap breaking up an all-nighter. But what if where we sleep is making us sick?

Several Sarah Lawrence operations workers, who wished to remain anonymous, discussed their long battle over getting the school to survey the possibility of asbestos on campus.

They affirmed that asbestos was specifically brought up during the labor negotiations last year (which finally ended with a union contract this past summer), and said they felt the need to raise the issue because “it is a safety hazard.” One worker reflected, “We were around it in the boiler rooms and stuff and we wanted it removed. They told us that there was no asbestos on campus and we told the lawyer that was B.S.”

According to, Beth Ditkoff, a biology professor at Sarah Lawrence, asbestos has the potential to pose a real threat to our health and safety. 

She explained, “Asbestos is a natural mineral product, which was used in the past in various construction materials such as insulation. Long-term exposure to asbestos can cause a serious lung condition called asbestosis—chronic scarring in the lungs leading to shortness of breath, cough and heart disease. The asbestos can also damage the lining around the lung leading to fluid buildup, difficulty breathing and intense pain.”

Air circulation was a major concern of the operations workers interviewed. “There are air handling units that we have to go in and turn valves and there is asbestos right near the valve and now its getting sucked up into the units and being blown out throughout the building,” one worker explained. He went further to say one of the rooms in the Performing Arts Center in fact had the issue of asbestos spreading through the air vents. Once the situation was recognized, the school had the asbestos removed from that designated room, but the worker clarified that this was only one room out of many that may have a similar issue.

Prior to winning their union contract, workers felt compelled to work in places they believed to be riddled with asbestos, because otherwise they would face possible dismissal. One worker explained the situation, “Before they could say ‘you’re not going to do your job? Fine then you’re fired’. At least now we can say no, or not be afraid to say no.”

Asbestos is not the only issue with Sarah Lawrence’s facilities. Victoria Mycue (’20) quoted Victoria Ford, a member of the board of trustees, in an October 2016 Phoenix article, “Meet the Couple who Funded the Gilbert/OSilas Renovations,” saying that most of the buildings on campus are at least thirty years behind code. The reason that asbestos is so concerning, apart from the other facility issues, is that in the mid-1900s, asbestos was a prevalent substance used in building homes until its eventual decline in the United States after the Clean Air Act of 1970. This time period is when many of Sarah Lawrence’s building were being built or renovated. It is not illegal to have asbestos containing material as long as it is not frayed, cut or damaged. But one of the workers said due to the amount of work they do near asbestos, “[I] can’t see how you can’t disturb it.”

Maureen Gallagher, the assistant vice president for facilities, denied the reports of harmful asbestos. “There is not an asbestos problem on campus.  Do we have asbestos containing materials (ACM) on campus? Yes. As you know the campus is 90 years old with many buildings having been built in the early to mid-1900’s,” she said. Paradoxically, she explained, there are situations when it is better for public safety not to remove asbestos. She said, “Having ACM in buildings when it’s not damaged or disturbed poses no risk for the occupants of the building and the well-being of all within in our community is one of the highest priorities of the College.” She added, “In many instances it is safer not to remove asbestos if the area in which it is contained is in good, sound condition.”

The workers do not seem to agree that the school’s main priority is safety. Rather, they believe money is doing most of the talking and leading administration to deny an asbestos issue. 

One worker said, “The whole thing came up when we were fighting to get the union here. They were saying that they are going to make [us] wear uniforms and we said ‘okay, no problem, we’ll wear uniforms.’ Then the union turns around and says ‘now you have to pay to clean those uniforms.’ The college asks ‘why’ and they said because [the workers] touch chemicals and asbestos, and the school says, ‘there’s no asbestos on campus.’ Everybody else in the room was like ‘yes there is.’”

This is not the first time that The Phoenix has covered asbestos on campus. In a 2012 Phoenix article titled, “Students grow frustrated with poor facilities management,” asbestos was cited as a major concern.

In that article, Mitchell Sutherland (’14) wrote about Dudley Lawrence and how the building was constructed at the height of ACM usage. He explained, “When buildings like Dudley Lawrence decay, becoming an epicenter of peeling paint and leaky pipes, the asbestos deteriorates. When this occurs, asbestos fibers tend to come lose and spread throughout the air. If inhaled, the fibers can cause mesothelioma, a cancer that grows on the lining of the lungs.”  In the article, Sutherland mentions 1984 as the last recorded time of asbestos removal.

In the 2012 article, Sutherland wrote that Gallagher said that the institution receives federal funding and thus does procedural surveys to stay up to code. In a recent correspondence with the Phoenix, Gallagher said, “Asbestos removal and air monitoring is done by licensed contractors.  Our maintenance employees do receive awareness training which helps them identify areas that may contain ACM so that we can bring in professionals to assess the situation, and if necessary, resolve the problem.”

The workers are at a consensus that whenever they have brought up asbestos, the school has “swept it under the rug.” The awareness training that the workers received started last year as a part of the labor negotiations. But one worker explained the inefficiencies of the training.      

He explained, “They actually skip through a lot of stuff. The school is paying them for their time. The guy said ‘well you don’t do this, this and this. So I won’t go over it.’ We had to stop him and say ‘yes, we do this, this and this.’”

There have been some recent improvements to asbestos on campus. Gallagher said early this semester that when Gilbert, now OSilas, was undergoing construction, asbestos was removed. The newly renovated laundry rooms were also checked for asbestos before their upgrades. The results led to some of the laundry rooms being cleaned for asbestos.

Gallagher added that there are two scheduled abatement projects for Westlands’ basement and Slonim in December/January and one more for sometime in 2017.  She added, “All of the work is contained in basements, boiler rooms and some storage rooms. I can also share the College is continuing its work with consultants to survey various parts of campus, especially basement and boiler room areas, which will allow the College to formally identify any additional necessary abatement projects.”

It is unclear whether these abatement projects are as a result of or in a preemptive response to the workers’ latest meeting with the administration and union leaders. The meeting was scheduled sometime in early November. Unfortunately, Gallagher was unable to reply in time to give a response about the meeting. In whatever case, thankfully the workers’ voices are being legitimized. Not only is the school starting asbestos surveys, but also it conceded and purchased protective equipment for the workers.

But, if these abatement projects are restricted to boilers and basements, are they overlooking possible asbestos in dorms, kitchens, classrooms, and offices? Workers are in more direct contact with contaminants, but if there is peeling on the walls, or cracks in floors, there is a possibility of disturbed asbestos in upper levels of buildings. One worker said that the New Dorms gives him the most concern. He recalled, “In RGT I have to climb on top of the boilers, stand on it, to switch the valves. Is it asbestos? I’m not sure, but I believe it is. It’s got to be tested.”

The procedure for asbestos is extremely costly. It requires two outside companies to come in so one can perform the tests, including air monitoring, while the other examines the first group. Is this why repeated concerns about asbestos have gone unheeded for so long?  It will be many years before one could survey the true damage asbestos has caused, since related health problems show up later in life. Youth are the most susceptible to long-term damage, because they are still in development. The cost may be high to survey and potentially close buildings due to asbestos. But can we put a price on the health of our workers, faculty and students?

As one worker summed the situation up, “You would think in this day in age and at this school, all of it would be removed.”

Andrea Cantor '17

SLC Phoenix

The Phoenix is a non-profit, student-run publication representing the voices and opinions of Sarah Lawrence College community members. Our print edition publishes bi-weekly on Tuesdays, and our online edition is updated multiple times per week. Anyone may attend our open meetings at 9:00 PM on Wednesday nights in the North Room of the Pub.

Student Senate Works on Bringing More Gender-Neutral Bathrooms to Campus

All gender bathroom signage in Esther Raushenbush Library’s downstairs restrooms. Photo credit: Andrea Cantor

All gender bathroom signage in Esther Raushenbush Library’s downstairs restrooms. Photo credit: Andrea Cantor

Whenever  Micha Dugan (‘19) begins to approach the nearest restroom, before swinging open the first door that they see is labeled as such, they halt before it. Looking at the sign on the door, Dugan, who identifies as non-binary and genderfluid, thinks: “Am I welcome here?”

After years of dialogue on the lack of gender-neutral restrooms on campus - and years of students like Dugan, a co-chair of TransAction, expressing their concerns - it seems progress might be on the horizon. Senate chair Leonardo Rocchiccioli (’18) introduced the issue at a Student Senate meeting on Sept. 22. The executive committee identified six crucial, “overarching goals,” one of which was to make all, or at least more, restrooms on campus gender-neutral. Student Senate continued to discuss their plan to achieve the objective throughout the fall semester.

“As a first step we want to make the bathrooms that work effectively as gender-neutral bathrooms, that are single stall bathrooms, make those officially and formally gender-neutral,” Rocchiccioli said. “After that we want to have a conversation about increasing the number of gender-neutral bathrooms on campus.”

The library, MacCracken, the Science Center, and the Pub, among other buildings, have single occupancy restrooms with gender-neutral signage. Titsworth Lecture Hall was designed to have two ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) UNISEX restrooms and ADA compliant signage. According to Assistant Vice President for Facilities Mo Gallagher, as the college moves forward in new construction or renovation, the feasibility of ADA accessible bathrooms will continue to be considered.

As students have expressed that the gender-neutral signage may be not be as clear as it could be (Rocchiccioli noted that the existing ones were made “ad hoc”), one goal that Student Senate is discussing with Gallagher is sign redevelopment.

“Mo suggested that we come up with signage that seemed to be the most inclusive and replacing those bathrooms that are essentially gender-neutral right now with the new signage to make it formally more inclusive,” Rocchiccioli said.

Though the aforementioned buildings do have gender-neutral restrooms, other buildings that do not include Heimbold and Westlands, the latter of which Rocchiccioli said he finds especially concerning.

“Westlands is so important because it is our flagship building,” he said. “It is the first thing people see when they come to campus and it is so odd that we pride ourselves as a queer-friendly school and then they see ‘men, women.’  That was one of the big reasons I thought this was important, because people walk onto this campus and we say ‘We have a place for you here,’ but then it is like ‘Yeah, right, I don’t even have a place to go pee.’”

A concern that came up from some senators in actualizing the proposal was hesitation in abandoning all single-gender restrooms for fear of increased risk of sexual assault. Senators discussed this and similar concerns at meetings, according to the senate minutes.

Rocchiccioli clarified this concern, saying, “What they were talking about was that some people find a safe space in the bathroom and that they wouldn’t want to disturb that, and by safe space I mean if it is someone who has been assaulted, they don’t want to encounter the assailant in the bathroom."

The problem may be curtailed with implementation of single occupancy gender-neutral restrooms, but such would be difficult in buildings where single occupancy restrooms are not already existent.

Rocchiccioli said he believes that senate’s collaboration with the college to achieve this goal will turn into “tangible work in the next semester.” Dugan noted they are hopeful that the college and senate will succeed in their work.

“Changing signage and taking steps to make Sarah Lawrence a more gender affirming space will take time, effort, and likely some money,” Dugan said. “But this is a small, small cost in comparison to the gain.”

Victoria Mycue '20 and Andrea Cantor '17

How Abled Are You For Registration Week?

Students signing up for interviews in Bates. Photo credit: Andrea Cantor '17

Students signing up for interviews in Bates. Photo credit: Andrea Cantor '17

Registration week is notorious for its chaos. For many students, it can be a daunting process - a week of running around campus in the late summer heat, wandering through confusing buildings in search of offices, and eventually waiting in a never-ending line at the library wondering if you will have to spend your Saturday repeating the whole ordeal. Yet for students with disabilities, registration week can be nearly impossible. 

The obvious reason why registration week is inaccessible for disabled students is the topographical reality of the campus’s layout. Bates hill is not something that can be easily altered, and it presents a challenge for those with visible or invisible mobile disabilities. 

Dean of Disabilities Polly Waldman helps tackle the geographical obstacle by accommodating students with mobility impairments with medical transport, interviews via phone or email, or arranging an accessible location for the student and professor to meet. Dean Waldman advises those with questions to look on MySLC under disability services for more information. 

To the credit of Sarah Lawrence, the school has allocated funds for accessible renovations to pre-existing buildings to meet ADA standards. But the buildings, even with renovations, still have consistent issues for those with disabilities. 

Economics professor Kim Christensen described her personal experiences with Science Center elevators during registration week: “My office is on the third floor of the science building and I can't climb stairs. During registration, the elevator is used very frequently and often breaks down. Directing able-bodied people to the stairs (and making the elevator more robust!) would be a great help.” During this year’s registration, the elevators in both Bates and the New Dorms were also out of service. 
But it is not only students with mobility issues - or, more specifically, visible mobility issues - that need accommodations during registration week. Those with invisible issues, including but not limited to, cognitive and psychological disabilities and autoimmune illnesses, could potentially require accommodations as well. Lily Ginsburg (’19) explained that her ADHD disability made her first year of registration particularly difficult. 

“As a person with ADHD, registration week is extremely difficult and confusing,” she said. “I just did not feel like the tasks set out to me were done so in manageable or well explained ways.” 

The description of disability services for registration on MySLC does state that “any student who has a disability and requires accommodations” should speak with Dean Waldman. But unfortunately, “any” typically translates to mainstream society as those with physical and visible disabilities. Moreover, those with invisible disabilities may similarly read the clause, believing that while they may be entitled to accommodations in the classroom, it is not the case for registration week. 

Recognizing the need and right for an accommodation is also complicated by the fact that one needs documentation from an individual in the medical field. As Bobby Marcus (’18) explained, disability documentation can be hard to acquire: “Documentation is complicated because a majority of the disabled student population does not have all of their disabilities documented. They may have one or two, but getting a diagnosis is […] time consuming, not to mention the money needed.” 

As of now, the system, while it may maintain accommodations, is still ableist. Those with disabilities must bend and work with a system that is not designed for them. Going forward, Marcus hopes that the system can evolve so that it can already encompass the needs of both the abled and non-abled bodies. 

“I believe that if the final part of registration, the actual signing up, was made online, it would drastically make signing up so much easier for everyone.” Professor Christensen agrees with an online option, saying, “It would also be more convenient for faculty to have online sign-up, as a student who decides against an interview could cancel it online, freeing up more time for faculty to conduct other interviews (or to take a break!)” 

Others who oppose these options argue that an online format of registration may not only be more disorganized in practice than the current system, but also defeat the spirit of registration, which many uphold as a rite of passage. 

Incorporating online resources into the registration period has been an area that Sarah Lawrence has been working on. This past summer, the MySLC Web Service team launched a Registration Map, so that students can digitally see where buildings and offices are located. This could be a real asset in minimizing the time that students look for offices as well as better organizing the process. 

Ginsburg, a sophomore, optimistically explained that going into her second year and understanding the campus layout, may help her during registration week: “I didn't know where to go or what to do and the whole thing ended up being a disorganized mess. But now I know the campus so maybe it will be better.” 

If successful, the Registration Map could make is so that other incoming first years do not have to go through the trials of aimlessly scrambling around campus in the oppressive heat as Ginsburg and others experienced in past years. 

While the comprehensive school map, if indeed used by individuals, will be an improvement for both able-bodied and non-able-bodied students, it is by no means the end of the changes needed to registration. 

Disability Alliance co-chair Emma Graydon (’17) said going online completely has also presented challenges, since the school did not print out any physical copies of the interview schedule this year. Although it is praiseworthy that the school chose a more eco-friendly recourse, a few physical copies would have been beneficial for those with attention disorders or disabilities that disrupt organization. 

“Every registration I feel like I'm at a disadvantage and struggle to keep up with other students in terms of getting to interview for the classes I'm most interested in taking. I simply can't process information as fast as someone without my disabilities,” Graydon explained. 

For all of its problems, registration week remains a valued process that makes Sarah Lawrence unique compared to other institutions. Students have the opportunity to ensure that their tuition dollars are placed into courses that they are not only interested in, but also teachers that they connect with. 

Yet the disorganization of registration week is a poor reflection of the institution’s platform of inclusion. Possibly online options or perhaps a rearrangement of the pre-existing process are the future of registration week. For example, registration could be done on the North or South Lawn and run similarly to the club fair structure, where students meet with teachers at designated tables. Professor Christensen suggests putting the accommodation information into the registration packets so that students are more aware of their options. 

Whatever recourse Sarah Lawrence’s administration deems best for the school’s trajectory, a decision must be made. Registration week for those with disabilities has been overlooked for too long. 

Andrea Cantor '17

Light It Up Blue Campaign Lights Up Protest

The Empire State Building lit up in support of Light It Up Blue.   Photo courtesy of Autism Speaks

The Empire State Building lit up in support of Light It Up Blue. Photo courtesy of Autism Speaks

In recent weeks, Disability Alliance has successfully protested the Autism Speaks’ Light It Up Blue campaign on Sarah Lawrence campus.  Traditionally, Westlands is lit up blue, to show SLC’s support of Autism Awareness Month. Disability Alliance’s heads, Bobby Marcus ’18, Emma Graydon ’17, and Rebecca Gross ’17 have challenged Autism Speaks’ seemingly goodwill activism, saying that the organization promotes an ableist view of autism as something to be “cured.” Disability Alliance has created a petition, where they express, “In spite of their name, Autism Speaks continually silences and dehumanizes the autistic people in our lives and communities under the guise of ‘awareness.’” The petition has circulated social media, with an upwards of 200 signatures from students, families, and faculty, asking for SLC to stop this Light it Up Blue event and for the administration to issue an apology. 

Al Green, Dean of Equity and Inclusion, released a statement on April 1 announcing that the Light it Up Blue event, which was supposed to be held on April 2, is cancelled due to the student outcry. Green states, “The best means for raising awareness and advancing social action is one that is fully embraced and led by Sarah Lawrence students and/or faculty.” The letter then concludes with Disability Alliance’s sponsored events in honor of Autism Awarness Month; including the April 5 Fidget Workshop to make “fidget” and “stim” bracelets and the April 8 Noisy Hands Open Mic Night to celebrate non-abled and neurodivergent voices and writings. 

This is not the first time that students have protested the Light it Up Blue campaign. Last year, Disability Alliance protested it by having a sit-in and handing out flyers on autism awareness and Autism Speaks’ ableist stances. Gross, who is currently studying abroad on the BADA program in London, elaborates on Autism Speaks, “They use fear mongering and pity rhetoric at the expense of autistic people in order to get donations which are then utterly misspent. Only about 4% of donations actually go to help people with autism. They claim to speak for a marginalized group of people who they then marginalize further.”   

The campus has been overall receptive to the protests and the cancellation of Light it Up Blue. Marcus explains, “The students have been extremely supportive of the [protest] campaign. This was important to do in the first place because the school should not say that they are inclusive and have Autism Speaks, a charity that promotes ableism on campus.” The protest has put a spotlight on an organization, whose negative practices have generally flown under the radar. Some students say that they were unaware that Autism Speaks had any negative associations, considering the organization’s positive reputation. Emily Marinoff ’18 discusses how the student protest enlightened her on the issue, “I assumed Light it Up Blue would spread awareness for a good cause, but last year when Westlands announced it would do it, I was informed by students that Autism Speaks is actually a pretty discriminatory organization. I would still be pretty ignorant to it if they hadn’t intervened.”

There are also students who have come forward with their disabilities in support of the protest. Miranda Lee ’19, who is not a part of Disability Alliance, made a Facebook post discussing her Asperger’s syndrome. When asked why she made the post, Lee says, “I, as someone with Asperger syndrome, knew that Sarah Lawrence could do much better than support a company that has not only made autistic children out to be monsters, but has wasted money on finding a “cure” instead of providing autistic children with the resources and love they need to grow and develop.”

Beyond the Light it Up Blue protest, Disability Alliance continues to showcase Autism Awareness Month. In red lettering, “Autism Awareness Month” and the club’s programming scheduled for April, coats Bates’ free speech board. Graydon clarifies, “The free speech board is red for a reason. Members of the autistic community have been using #REDinstead and #lightitupRED on social media this April to protest Autism Speaks and its harmful rhetoric.” She continues, “We are very pleased that the administration agreed not to participate this year and will hopefully continue to support its autistic students in the future.”

This is not the end of the battle against Light it Up Blue on Sarah Lawrence’s campus. The issue will be revisited next year. As Green wrote in his statement, “Any future consideration regarding the participation of Sarah Lawrence College in this or any other campaign will require the direct support of students and/or faculty.” Green goes on to commend the members of Disability Alliance, “The Disability Alliance not only helped give voice to student concern, but has taken leadership in advancing autism awareness and education regarding the importance of neurodiversity.” Although there is a possibility for blue lights in SLC’s future, for now, diversity activists celebrate their hard-earned victory.

Andrea Cantor '17

SLC Phoenix

The Phoenix is a non-profit, student-run publication representing the voices and opinions of Sarah Lawrence College community members. Our print edition publishes bi-weekly on Tuesdays, and our online edition is updated multiple times per week. Anyone may attend our open meetings at 9:00 PM on Wednesday nights in the North Room of the Pub.