A Pennsylvania school district is trying to figure out whether the deaths of six students since December are connected. 13-year-old student Jessica Batdorf collapsed April 22 while walking to her homeroom with friends at East Pennsboro Middle School and died at a hospital. The coroner’s office has not yet ruled on the cause of death. Her parents want to know if environmental problems are to blame.

State epidemiologists this week plan to begin reviewing the health records of Jessica and five other students who have died in the 2,800-student East Pennsboro Area School District. The deaths have involved students of different ages who died from different causes. Records of students who visited the nurse’s office also will be examined.

The first three students to die, in December and January, all suffered from life-threatening illnesses. But three others who died in the past two weeks all had been apparently healthy. The state Health Department has recommended that the district hire an environmental testing company. “I know that the board and the administration are very concerned about assuring the public we’ve been doing everything we can. We don’t want to leave any stone unturned,” says Helen Belsak, a spokeswoman for the district. A freight distribution rail yard is the only heavy industry in this quiet town of 19,000 people.

Besides, Jessica Batdorf, the other students who died are: Breanna Nicole Santiago, 5, a kindergartner who had a rare lung disorder and underwent a double lung transplant; Lee Umbenhauer, 18, who had a rare form of cancer; Chris Shamansky, 16, who died of heart abnormalities two days after he collapsed during track practice; Jimmy Henry, 17, who died of an aneurysm; and Tiffanie Salvadia, 16, who died of ovarian cancer.

Dr. Bela Matyas, assistant epidemiologist with the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, says six deaths in a community the size of East Pennsboro is not as unusual as it might seem. “There are situations where you could have a car accident that could kill five or six high school students. If you look at death as an endpoint, the number of deaths is unfortunately not that unusual,” she says. “It’s tempting to try to draw a link because they’re all young, and because we don’t expect so many rare events in one place.”

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