Toxic Avenger

Although Charles Boldwyn was rightfully concerned about paint fumes, the school district says he's nuts
Michael Steinbacher

It's been ten months since chemistry teacher Charles Boldwyn had to evacuate his Miami Killian Senior High School classroom because of noxious paint fumes, but as far as he's concerned something still stinks.

Smells like a coverup. Smells like retaliation. Smells like the school district is trying to drum him out of a job because he had the temerity to question his principal's judgment.

That principal is one Timothy Dawson, famous for orchestrating the arrest of nine Killian students in February 1998 because they published a profane pamphlet. Dawson is rather less famous for his run-in with Boldwyn in October of that year, though the incident did make Joan Fleischman's "Talk of Our Town" column in the October 26 Miami Herald. Dawson claimed that Boldwyn had struck him after an argument, according to Fleischman. The teacher was frustrated because his classrooms lack overhead projectors, the principal added.

Boldwyn, a tightly wound, diminutive 56-year-old with a graying goatee and mismatched brown and blue eyes, says Dawson is lying. He claims the principal choreographed their confrontation last year because Boldwyn had been threatening to tell Killian parents about the potential health hazards of the solvent-based paint vapors the students had inhaled. Boldwyn isn't working now and might not return to school in the fall. The reason: A police investigation concluded that he had not only vowed to tattle on Dawson, but physically threatened the principal.

It turns out Boldwyn was right about those nasty odors. Largely in response to complaints the teacher lodged with his union, Miami-Dade County Public Schools this past April toughened its rules regarding the use of solvent-based paints indoors. Although police cleared Boldwyn of charges he struck Dawson, the district still is trying to fire the educator, alleging that he is psychologically unfit to teach.

Nuts or not, Boldwyn did not imagine the scent that wafted through Killian High's halls last fall. H.A. Contracting, Inc. was using solvent-based paint one day in late September when Boldwyn walked into the second-floor wing where he taught his first-and second-period classes. He smelled the problem immediately. "The air was saturated with the vapor of aromatic hydrocarbons," Boldwyn says in his high-pitched voice. "I'd smelled them before." He notes that the green paint on the classroom doors was still wet.

Students from both of Boldwyn's classes complained about a pungent chemical stench. After noticing that his second-period students were acting as though they were "drugged," he began searching for Dawson to get permission to clear the classroom. He finally found an assistant principal, who allowed him to move his kids to the cafeteria. (He had already sent some to the nurse's office and others home.)

Earlier that day Dawson had berated Boldwyn for "being rude and obnoxious" to the principal's secretaries. Boldwyn says he took the opportunity to ask Dawson about the paint. Dawson's response, Boldwyn says: "I don't care what you think about what I do or how I run this school. If you don't like it, get a transfer out of here." (Dawson declined to comment on Boldwyn's situation. He emphasized that nothing improper had occurred during the painting job.)

Boldwyn didn't formally complain about the paint, but told colleagues he strongly suspected the fumes were toxic. He also considered conducting a chemical analysis of the paint. And he said he would share his suspicions with Killian parents. Meanwhile, Boldwyn asserts, Dawson began harassing him in numerous small ways (like withholding teaching equipment) for months. In early October, Dawson placed Boldwyn on probation.

On the afternoon of October 16, a vacation day for students, Boldwyn says he was working in his office when the principal entered. Dawson had called school district police, alleging that Boldwyn had been threatening him. When Dawson stepped into Boldwyn's office and closed the door, four cops were standing in a nearby hallway.

The principal and the teacher give different accounts of the events that ensued. Boldwyn says he felt threatened by Dawson and clearly remembers the principal uttering the phrase: "You'd better stop scaring students and teachers." (The principal, at 35 years old and six feet seven inches tall, is 20 years younger and more than a foot taller than Boldwyn, a former Green Beret sergeant and Vietnam veteran.)

In response Boldwyn says he described a litany of complaints, including the health hazard posed by the paint fumes. Dawson taunted him, Boldwyn says, then stood over him, leaning forward as if he wanted the teacher to hit him. Dawson eventually struck Boldwyn "with great force, with both of his balled-up hands," the teacher claims.

Boldwyn says he flew backward onto a desk, then picked himself up. But he didn't retaliate. Dawson then walked out of the office, approached the police officers, and said, "He struck me."

According to the police report, the cops had heard Boldwyn yell, "I should punch you in the fucking head." Once the pair emerged from the office, the police handcuffed Boldwyn until he calmed down. They didn't arrest him, but the following Monday Dawson assigned him to a desk job at the Region 5 office. The cops told Boldwyn not to return to Killian without a police officer.

Boldwyn didn't remain at the region office for long. In December the district put him on paid administrative leave. While administrators began a disciplinary investigation and scheduled a psychological evaluation, Boldwyn used his ample free time to investigate the paint used at Killian. He also pressed the issue with his union, the United Teachers of Dade (UTD). The union forwarded chemical analyses of the paints (filed with the district) to the national office of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT).

On March 29 Darryl Alexander, the AFT's occupational safety and health coordinator, wrote a letter to UTD president Murray Sisselman. She wrote that the solvent-based paints used at Killian were "inappropriate for interior application in a school."

As Boldwyn had suspected, the material used at Killian contained aromatic hydrocarbons, including benzene, xylene, and toluene. Long-term exposure to benzene fumes has been shown to cause "cancer, bone marrow disorders, and kidney and liver damage," Alexander noted. She pointed out, however, that the Killian students were probably not exposed long enough to risk these chronic diseases.

All aromatic hydrocarbons cause irritation of the eyes, nose, and throat, headaches, difficulty breathing, nausea, dizziness, lightheadedness, and other symptoms, Alexander explained. She recommended several ways to protect students and teachers from such fumes. First on the list: Don't use solvent-based paints inside occupied schools.

In April the UTD presented these recommendations to district officials. In an April 2 memorandum, chief facilities officer Paul Phillips wrote, "All of the above listed suggestions were good, and if maintenance staff were not already using them, we would do so."

Meanwhile police cleared Boldwyn of alleged assault against Dawson, but confirmed that he had verbally threatened the principal. Assistant principal Lena Bernstein told police that Boldwyn, on the day of the confrontation, "became upset, and exited [her] office screaming, 'If you all want a war, I'll give you a war.'"

According to the November police report, Angelee Davis, head of the science department, told police that after the incident Boldwyn said: "'I was a Green Beret in the military. I could have Mr. Dawson killed if I wanted to. I could get his job for hitting me.'" (Boldwyn admits saying something about a war but denies making any comment about assassinating the principal.) Davis, Bernstein, and another teacher describes Boldwyn's behavior as "erratic."

The police report also noted several important incidents from Boldwyn's record. In 1989 the district substantiated a charge of battery against him; Boldwyn says a problem student accused him of assault when he put his hand on the back of her neck to escort her from the classroom. Boldwyn spent the rest of the semester working in the library. In 1983 police charged him with DUI, battery on an officer, threats against a public official, and driving without a valid license. He pleaded guilty to DUI and was referred to substance-abuse counseling; the remaining charges (which he says stemmed from a police officer being confrontational with him) were dropped.

In November of last year, police substantiated the charge of improper conduct and verbal threats against Dawson. Boldwyn hasn't worked since. On January 28 Coral Gables psychiatrist Anastasio M. Castiello wrote a four-page report, which states the teacher believed his paint-fume complaints had caused his superiors to take disciplinary action. (The shrink also misspelled his patient's name throughout the report.) Castiello's conclusion: "Mr. Boldwin [sic] presented the clinical picture of an individual suffering from a moderately severe psychiatric disorder ... [and] an involutional disorder with intertwined elements of paranoid and the affective disorders.

"Strictly from the psychiatric standpoint, Mr. Boldwin [sic] would not be able to perform satisfactorily as a teacher."

Thus, until he can come up with a contradictory second opinion, Boldwyn likely will not teach for Miami-Dade. In June the district told him that, because he received an "unacceptable" performance evaluation, he would not be allowed to work at summer school. The district also has forwarded its investigative files to the state department of education, thereby endangering Boldwyn's teaching certificate.

"I'm being railroaded," Boldwyn laments. "I don't expect they're ever going to find me fit for work. They're going to use this ploy, and try to break me financially."

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