Scott Carpenter
  • Dr. Scott Carpenter
    Superintendent, Monomoy Regional School District
    Office of the Superintendent
    425 Crowell Road, 2nd Floor, Chatham, MA 02633
    phone: (508) 945-5130 fax: (508) 945-5133

  • Harwich Elementary School playground update

    Posted by Scott Carpenter on 10/25/2019

    The History of Harwich’s Castle

    • The current playground, Castle in the Clouds, was built in 1994 via community build.
    • The local organizers for the playground were a small group with big ideas.
    • They hired Leathers, a company specializing in creating custom-designed, site-built, and unique playgrounds for communities, to help with the design and to provide the materials.
    • Fundraising for the Castle in the Clouds was community-wide effort, and involved things like public ice skating events, pancake breakfasts, barber shop haircuts, change jars at local businesses, bake sales, and a Country-Western event.
    • In May of 1994, a team of 784 volunteers, some working around the clock, assembled the Castle in the Clouds in just five days.
    • Over the intervening years, the Castle in the Clouds has provided a place for enjoyment and exploration for literally two generations of Harwich children.

    Even the Most Amazing Castles Slowly Decay

    • The Harwich Public Schools and now Monomoy Regional School District facilities team has worked diligently over the years to maintain the equipment, making repairs and adjustments when necessary, often with input and advice from Leathers, and got an additional 5 years over the expected lifetime use from the Castle in the Clouds, which in 2019, now has been in place for 25 years. 
    • A safety audit was performed in October 2018 by an independent third-party inspector (Playground Inspections of New England, LLC), which found numerous safety concerns. These include: poor sightlines, head entrapment risks, splinters, impalement risks, tripping hazards, rotting wood, code violations (height of equipment, etc.), and non-compliant ground surfacing.
    • The conclusion of the safety audit states: “Although the structure as a whole may ‘visually’ appear to be in good condition, the reality is there are many hazards that may not be readily visible to a normal user. The wooden structure will be difficult to retrofit, and I do not recommend this as an option.” The recommendation was removal by the end of 2019.
    • On December 13, 2018, a phone call was held with Leathers, where the representative said that this playground had a 20-year lifespan in ideal weather conditions.
    • This is consistent with the published lifespan estimate provided by the company’s President, Marc Leathers, who said that their wooden 1990s playground structures were built for about 20 years use if properly maintained.
    • Leathers has indicated that they could address some safety issues and extend the life of the playground by another two to three years for $109,000-$139,000, but this would not bring the playground into compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) or the Massachusetts Architectural Access Board (MAAB) accessible route mandates, nor would it address the concerns about the carcinogenic wood preservative used originally in the construction of the playground. Leathers estimated the replacement of Castle in the Clouds equipment at $275,000 to $350,000, with an additional cost of $150,000 for the poured-in-place rubber surfacing for ADA compliance. This quote does not include the preschool playground and other costs. 
    • Some of the safety issues raised in the October 2018 playground audit were able to be addressed by removal of the aging pieces, including the spiral slide and firepole from the Castle in the Clouds and the jungle gym from the Preschool Playground.

    The Castle Violates ADA and MAAB Codes

    • As of March 2011, play areas need to be compliant with ADA standards. Our current elementary school playgrounds are not ADA or MAAB compliant for access. The proposed project will remove barriers for children with disabilities so that they can fully participate on the playground and develop physically, socially, and emotionally alongside their peers.
    • The current playground is not accessible to users with mobility challenges (such as wheelchairs, walkers, etc.) because there is not an accessible route to each piece of play equipment and around the perimeter of the playground, the pieces were not laid out to accommodate the turning radius of wheelchairs, and there are no means of accessing elevated play components from a wheelchair.
    • The surface of the accessible route must be "firm, stable, and slip resistant" according to the Massachusetts Architectural Access Board. The mulch that has long been used at Castle in the Clouds does not meet MAAB requirements, because it does not remain either firm, stable, or slip resistant over time.
      • Similarly, engineered wood fiber may meet ADA requirements, but is not permitted under MAAB for use on accessible routes required.
      • Current code requires poured-in-place surfacing to meet both MAAB accessible route requirements and the fall safety requirements imposed by other regulations (ASTM).
    • ADA code includes requirements that at least 50% of elevated play components be accessible to mobility-challenged users, with access to at least one of each type of ground-level component, and with all components laid out with 60 inches of ground maneuvering space to allow wheelchairs or mobility devices to turn.
    • There are currently Harwich resident children attending Harwich Elementary School who are mobility impaired and using wheelchairs who have no means to access Castle in the Clouds or the preschool playground for recess.
    • Given that it is now 8 years beyond when play areas needed to be ADA compliant, anyone could file an ADA complaint, on behalf of themselves, their child, or any person they feel is being discriminated against, alleging disability discrimination against the Town and School District because of inaccessiblity of the Harwich Elementary School playground. If deemed valid by the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division, the School District and Town would need to resolve the concern raised or face penalties of up to $75,000 for the first ADA violation and $150,000 for any subsequent violation.
    • Retrofitting the Castle in the Clouds with poured rubber surfacing (at a cost of approximately $180,000) would only address MAAB accessible route requirements -- the playground itself would not be ADA compliant because none of the elevated play components are accessible to our students in wheelchairs.  A retrofit rubber surface would also not address other safety concerns about the toxic preservative used in the current wooden structure.

    The Castle Contains a Known Carcinogen

    • The type of wood preservative, Chromated Copper Arsenate (or CCA), that is infused into every wood member of the Castle in the Clouds was banned for use in residential construction and playgrounds in 2002 because it is a known carcinogen.
    • Leathers has stated that their company stopped treating its wood with this arsenic compound in 2002, more than a year before federal officials ordered phasing out of the practice.
    • As there were less toxic wood preservatives available on the market in 1994, the choice to use CCA in the construction of the Castle in the Clouds and in many Leathers projects between 1994 and 2002 demonstrated some disregard to mounting concerns over this toxic wood preservative.
    • As early as 1990, four years before the construction of Castle in the Clouds,  the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commision published an advisory that the CCA preservative used in many wooden playgrounds had the potential to increase skin cancers in children from ingested arsenic. This early advisory warned that simply applying paint or stains to the wood may not prevent arsenic contamination to the children playing on the structures.
    • As the scientific evidence and understanding on the risks to children from CCA mounted, the Consumer Product Safety Commission ultimately published an advisory in conjunction with the EPA for Guidelines for Outdoor Wooden Structures. Some of the specific use/handling precautions in this guideline read:
      • “Do not allow children or pets to play in soil or other material under or near CCA-treated decks or structures.”
      • “Children should not eat while on CCA-treated playgrounds as arsenic may be transferred to the mouth.”
      • “Thoroughly wash hands and all exposed body parts with soap and water after handling or playing on CCA-treated products.”
      • “Launder clothing worn when handling CCA-treated wood separately.”
    • To the best of our understanding, Harwich Public Schools, the Town, and Monomoy Regional Schools were not alerted to the fact that the wood in Castle in the Clouds is treated with CCA; this knowledge surfaced as the district began reviewing the safety audit done October 2018.
    • In late September 2019, Monomoy’s Facilities Director called Leathers to inquire if the wood could be sanded to prevent splinter injuries. Leathers stated that the wood in Castle in the Clouds was CCA treated and should not be sanded, as sanding would release arsenic into the environment surrounding the playground.
    • There is no retrofit or coating that will fully protect children from arsenic exposure at the Castle in the Clouds. The playground could be layered with coats of sealant and the mulch that has absorbed arsenic leached into it over the years excavated, but the CCA in the structure would still remain and would continue to seep through any coating and into the surrounding playground environment.

    Evidence that Concerns in the Castle are Getting Worse

    • As the wooden playground ages in our coastal climate, the wood begins to increasingly crack and splinter. Students regularly get rather significant splinters that require medical attention from the school nurse.
    • During the 2018-2019 school year, 165 children needed to see the school nurse to have splinters removed from their skin, nearly one child per day.  
    • So far on October 18 (Day 32) of the 2019-2020 school year, the nurse has had to remove splinters from 38 children. This is a 30% increase in splinter injuries this school year compared to last.
    • Our concerns about splintering are magnified by the fact that these splinters are coming from CCA-treated wood.
    • At the request of the Superintendent of Schools, the third-party playground inspector (Nancy White from Playground Inspections of New England, LLC) was asked to provide a comparative safety update and recommendations, roughly one year after her initial inspection of Castle in the Clouds.
    • Her October 23, 2018, update included:
      • “There is no question that this playground has deteriorated over the past year. I did not expect to see the extent of new hazards and further deterioration of hazards noted last year.”
      • “Aged cracking wood is ‘splaying,’ thus, a high probability of slivers occurring.”
      • Hardware is ‘backing out” of aging wood throughout the playground.
      • “The entire interior [of the playground, by its design] is a tripping hazard,” -- falls are responsible for 79% of playground injuries nationally, particularly when the child falls into other equipment.
    • Closure of Harwich Elementary’s beloved Castle in the Clouds is the only means to protect children from the mounting hazards of the playground structure as it ages and from the underlying arsenic exposure.

    Prioritizing Safety and Accessibility First

    • A committee comprised of parents, teachers, staff, and community members was formed to review the October 2018 Safety Audit and to discuss possible solutions, including retrofitting and replacement.
      • HES Community Playground Committee Members
        • Katie Cutter - President, HES PTO
        • Justin Tavano - Original Castle in the Clouds user, HES School Council, Youth Sports Coach, and HES Parent
        • Eric Beebe - Director, Recreation Department, Town of Harwich
        • John Larivee - Original Castle in the Clouds user, HES School Council, Monomoy Youth Basketball, Monomoy Little League, Harwich Police Department, and HES Parent
        • Leighanne Smith - Original Castle in the Clouds user, Harwich Fire Department, and HES Parent
        • Shannon Reeves - HES School Council, HES Parent
        • Tina Games - MRSD School Committee
        • Mark Haley - President, Monomoy Little League
        • Erin Cronen - HES Preschool Teacher, HES Parent
        • Ashley Cook - Original Castle in the Clouds user, HES Grade 2 Teacher, HES Parent
        • Emily Reed - HES Instructional Assistant
        • Mary Oldach - Principal, HES
        • Sharon Hughes - Assistant Principal, HES
        • Kathleen Isernio - Business Manager, MRSD
        • Rick Travers - Facilities Director, MRSD
        • Rick Sirois - Lead Custodian, HES
        • Joy Jordan - Monomoy Community Engagement Coordinator
    • In January 2019, the Harwich Elementary School Principal and Monomoy Community Engagement Coordinator met with Don Howell, who spearheaded the original construction of the Castle in the Clouds, to learn more about the background of that project, and invited him to participate on the Playground Committee and asked him to extend an invitation to any remaining members of his group from the 1990s.
    • The HES Playground Committee deemed replacement as the only option able to address both ADA and safety concerns.
    • Monomoy Regional issued an RFQ for site design services January 2019.
    • A contract for site design was awarded to DeVellis Zrein.
    • A replacement playground for Harwich Elementary is estimated to cost $686,000.
      • $180,000 for the rubber surfacing required by MAAB so all children can access all structures. 
      • $506,000 for the replacement of both the Castle in the Clouds and Preschool Playground structures, all the sitework, fencing, site furnishings, a required nearby handicapped parking area, a shaded area for class use, parents, and grandparents, and an area for games (like hopscotch and Gaga Ball).
    • The HES PTO has committed to supporting this project through fundraising and other logistical work, including applying for the Harwich CPC grant. The PTO held a Fun Run in February 2019 and directed all funds raised from that event to the playground project. That event raised approximately $33,000. The Fun Run will be held again in February 2020 and all funds raised from this event will also go to this project. Additional fundraisers will be held by the PTO. In addition, Monomoy Little League and Monomoy Youth Hoops have committed to holding fundraisers to support the project. Other grants have also been identified and will be sought according to the deadline for each. In addition, local contractors will be solicited to donate labor including the demolition, removal, and disposal of the existing structure when possible, as well as other site work moving forward. There is hope that the community will be as supportive of this project as it was with Castle in the Clouds 25 years ago.
    • The replacement of the playground, to address ADA and safety issues, is a high priority need and is the first phase of a larger community project envisioned by the HES Playground Committee. The additional phases in the longer-term, multi-year project would provide an intergenerational park setting behind the Harwich Cultural Center and Harwich Elementary School, for use by citizens and visitors of all ages. Later phases of the project would include adding pickleball courts and replacing the basketball courts ($322,500) and improved Little League and youth soccer fields ($551,688).

    Superintendent’s Recommendation

    • Castle in the Clouds has been an amazing resource for families in and visiting the Town of Harwich and this region of Cape Cod. Between its use during school hours, after school, on the weekend, and during vacations, Castle in the Clouds is likely the recreational asset in town receiving the most users over the course of the year.
    • It is a wooden structure, built to last 20 years, and the Town and two generations of children have enjoyed 25 years of play on it, largely because of the care it had been given over the years when it was a Harwich town asset and then a Monomoy asset as well.
    • As a wooden structure, it has a finite lifespan and ultimately needs to be closed to allow for a new playground to take its place.
    • With the following factors taken into consideration:
      • the lack of ADA accessibility and an inability to retrofit the playground,
      • an increase in the splinter injuries (this year compared to last),
      • a need to protect all children from exposure to CCA (an arsenic-containing wood preservative that we now know is in the wood), and
      • a growing number of safety issues as the playground ages,


               the Superintendent recommends closing Castle in the Clouds.


    At its Oct. 24, 2019, meeting, the Monomoy Regional School Committee voted to close the Castle in the Clouds playground effective immediately.

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