Needle poke turns into big problem at L.A. charter school

When 6-year-old Kristopher Kuerten pricked himself with a syringe found at his school, his Redondo Beach parents had no idea they would end up locked in a complicated dispute over the needle.

The school’s insurance company seized the needle and won’t release it, saying no lab is willing to test it. The family is worried about their son’s health and wants the syringe tested.

The incident, which happened at Goethe International Charter School, underscores the unusual problems that can be especially challenging for a school with no support from school district bureaucracy. Charters are independently managed, a freedom considered crucial to their success. But it also means they function outside of long-developed procedures.

Goethe, which shares a Marina del Rey campus with a Los Angeles Unified School District middle school, offers German-language immersion.

Kristopher hasn’t experienced any medical problems, and experts say his risk for infection from HIV, hepatitis or other pathogens is low. But his parents are unhappy about how matters were handled.

During a school day in February, a classmate apparently found a syringe in an electrical box and gave it to Kristopher. The prick probably happened when he played with the syringe during the after-school program. A staff member attended to the minor wound.

Jean and Thomas Kuerten said they learned what happened from Kristopher.

School Principal Luci Fowers declined to discuss the matter, but in an earlier e-mail to the Kuertens, she wrote that after-school program workers, who aren’t employees of the school, “had been [given] misinformation about the use of the syringe to nourish plants apparently from one of our interns.”

Fowers added: “No one from our [permanent] staff was on our campus at that time nor were we informed about the incident until we returned from the weekend.”

At a Los Angeles Unified School District school, the nurse or a designated staff member would have provided first aid and notified the parents and the needle would have been placed in a “sharps container,” said Connie Moore, the district’s director of nursing.

At Goethe, the principal was out ill for a time, and it was not until eight days after the incident that she alerted the parents that the syringe was not for plants, according to e-mails from the school provided by the family.

She invited the Kuertens to pick up the needle for possible testing, but George Hills Co.claimed the needle first.

Insurance is among many issues that charters must deal with.

The Sacramento-area insurance provider has since said that it cannot find a lab to test the needle. Nor will it surrender the syringe unless a lab or physician signs “an affidavit that he or she will take full responsibility for the syringe, have it tested and provide us a copy of the report immediately upon completion of the test,” as stated in a letter to the parents.

“There is no doubt in my mind that the insurance company is doing everything to avoid releasing the syringe,” Thomas Kuerten said. “Originally we were told that the syringe was already being tested.”

The Kuertens contacted the North State Drug Testing lab in Redding to test the needle, but the lab backed off over the affidavit.

“I couldn’t believe the heck that this guy was going to put me through to test it,” said lab owner Nancee Sea. She said any lab would hesitate to test a needle that had not been stored securely.

The California Charter Schools Assn., which helped schools set up a self-insurance pool, responded on behalf of the insurance provider. A spokeswoman defended the seizing of the needle. “I’m assuming that would be the standard thing to do,” said Peri Lynn Turnbull.

If the school or insurance company had called the Los Angeles police or fire departments, the police would have collected the needle as evidence, because it could be linked to illegal activity such as drug use or improper needle disposal, said police and fire officials.

If properly requested, the department would release the needle for testing, said Lt. John Romero, a spokesman for the LAPD.

The Olive View- UCLA Medical Center, for one, does not routinely test needles, and the potential value of testing diminishes rapidly, said infectious disease specialist David Talan, the hospital’s chief of emergency medicine.

“Most viruses are gone within a few hours,” he said.

Talan recommended patient blood testing at three and six months after such an incident. He said an immediate review of the wound, the needle and the location where it was found might indicate, in rare cases, a need for lengthy antiviral treatment.

At this point, he said, a test of the needle that showed nothing harmful would prove little.