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Lights go out

House passes bill on halide lights

Kellie La Follette has two big reasons to celebrate this week.

First, with the help of special lenses, she has regained her normal vision for the first time in years.

Then, the Oregon House of Representatives voted unanimously to ban the lights that severely burned La Follette's eyes in 2004.

'It felt like we won the Super Bowl,' La Follette said, describing how she felt when the 55-0 vote result came in at the House chambers Tuesday.

She shared many hugs and tears of joy with friend Sherry Rhoades.

'We knew the ramifications of passing (the bill) meant that children, parents and patrons of Oregon public schools will never have to go through what we have,' she added. 'It's been a very emotional day.'

La Follette, Rhoades and several other Lake Oswego teachers suffered long-term injuries in 2004 after they sat under a defective halide light during a teacher in-service day at Bryant Elementary School.

Several of the injured teachers now wear wrap-around sunglasses to leave their homes and visit doctors regularly.

La Follette, who suffered the most severe injuries, covered her windows with brown wrapping paper this spring. She no longer went fly-fishing or hiking in the Oregon wilderness, a love she shared with her husband.

The teachers' situation prompted legislation to ban the halide lights in schools across Oregon. Senate Bill 479 will require all Oregon school districts to replace light bulbs that can injure students and teachers.

Rep. Greg Macpherson, D-Lake Oswego, spoke about the bill for 10 minutes before leading legislation to the vote on the floor of the Oregon House.

It took less than a minute for the House to pass the bill and send it back to the Senate for its OK on a change that shortened the proposed compliance deadline from one year to six months.

If the Senate approves the change, the bill will then move forward to Gov. Ted Kulongoski for his signature. The bill is scheduled to take effect July 1.

'If we had our choice we would make it active immediately, but anything that shortens that period of time and gets schools safer sooner, certainly it's a good thing,' La Follette said.

Senate Bill 479 is sponsored jointly by Macpherson and by Sen. Richard Devlin, D-Tualatin, who carried the bill in the Senate in April. It requires all school districts in Oregon to replace R type metal halide or mercury vapor light bulbs with T type lights bulb.

The banned lights are commonly found in large warehouses, stores and gymnasiums at schools. The R type bulb, which doesn't turn off when it's broken, poses a danger when its cover is broken and the light continues to burn and emit high doses of ultraviolet rays.

The alternative T type bulb snuffs out on its own 15 minutes after it breaks. The bulbs are easily interchangeable, according to Devlin, whose district includes Lake Oswego and West Linn.

The Lake Oswego School District took action to replace the dangerous bulbs promptly after the 2004 incident.

The House decision represents a milestone for the teachers, who have worked with Devlin to shape the legislation and campaigned for its approval.

La Follette recently returned from a trip to the Boston Foundation for Sight, where specialists fitted her with custom lenses that give her sight without the usual pain or light sensitivity. The lenses, which act as 'liquid bandages,' must be removed before bedtime.

'I am truly living a miracle right now,' she said. 'Everything seems fresh and exciting and I got another chance.'

La Follette, who formerly taught at River Grove Elementary, hopes to teach again when school resumes in late August. Rhoades, a physical education teacher, splits her workday between River Grove and Bryant elementary schools.

The women along with injured teachers Denise Fletter, Mary Neerhout Borge and Carol Teater, may meet with Kulongoski for a ceremonial bill signing within the next two weeks.

'The real crowning moment is a silent moment no one will be able to hear … the sound of children not being burned anymore,' La Follette said, her voice cracking with emotion.

'You don't want anyone to ever go through it and we celebrate Oregon being the first state to pass this legislation. We can't stop … not when you know what harm (the lights) can do.'