What's Up with Lead Levels in Flint Schools?
Originally published on the Michigan Chronicle
When it comes to the situation regarding the water in Flint’s public schools, Jeree Brown is in the dark.
With two children attending Eisenhower Elementary School, she has no idea what’s going on regarding state testing of water in schools throughout the Flint Community Schools district.
She’s not alone.
Parents, student, teachers and the community at large have virtually no access to the results of testing that’s been conducted throughout 2016.
Ask the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality about the situation, and you will be directed to a state web site that has information about both residential testing and the school testing that began more than a year ago when the state finally admitted that Flint’s water was contaminated with high levels of lead, a potent neurotoxin especially harmful to young children.
The problem is that, while residential test results are completely up to date, with data from testing conducted as recently as November 2016, information for nearly all the district’s traditional public schools hasn’t been updated since the results from an initial round of testing conducted in October, November and December of 2015 were posted.
Asked via email why the posting of school testing results lag so far behind residential testing, MDEQ spokesman Michael Shore responded:
“The distinction is we provide sampling results to Flint Community Schools as we do with other institutions (child care, adult foster care and health facilities). The responsible party receives reports in advance of the results being posted to provide them time to review them and raise any questions that may arise. The FCS individual schools data will be compiled in their totality and provided to the Superintendent with a review of the data. It is also worth noting that this process is taking longer because we committed to sample after filters were installed in the schools.”
But the bottom line is, with few exceptions, all of the Flint Community Schools testing results available to the general public are a year old.
Jeree Brown is a plaintiff in an ACLU of Michigan lawsuit that seeks to force the state and school district to provide the full extent of education services and assistance needed to help lead-damaged children reach their full potential. It is anticipated that, on or before December 8, the state and district will file a motion attempting to have the suit dismissed.
She says the lack of information regarding the water in her kids’ school is adding even more angst to an inherently stressful situation. The residents of Flint have been suffering since a state-appointed emergency manager forced the city to begin using the highly caustic Flint River as the city’s municipal water source in April 2014. The river water was so harsh that, combined with a lack of mandatory corrosion control chemicals, it leeched lead from the aging pipes into the drinking water. Last year, Gov. Rick Snyder allowed the city to again start using water from Lake Huron, but so much damage was done to infrastructure that the water is still not considered safe unless it is filtered.
Brown says the school allows her children only one bottle of water per day each so she worries about them being adequately hydrated.
“I’m extremely stressed, to the point where I come home from dropping my kids off at school and start to cry—a lot,” says Brown, who works as a nurses’ assistant.
Brown cites other problems as well. She says her 5-year-old son, Jabari, is autistic and has been bullied at school.
Confusion over what’s going on with the water only makes things worse.
And not just for students and their parents.
Bethany Dumanois teaches 1st and 2nd grade at Freeman Elementary School, which showed some of the highest lead levels in any school when the state began testing in October 2015.
“I’ve received no communication about what’s going on with the water,” says Dumanois. “No updates. Nothing.”
Dumanois says she’s “no fan of bottled water,” explaining that it is a distraction and interferes with trying to provide her students with an education.
But she sees no end in sight to what she calls the “Band-Aid” of bottled water.
The state, according to documents provided in response to a Freedom of Information Act request, has been replacing fixtures containing lead and installing water filters on fountains in schools throughout the district.
The most recent test results show occasional spikes in lead levels in some locations. And, in the case of the district’s central kitchen, which supplies meals to schools throughout the district, work has not yet even begun to install filters, which had to be specially ordered.
In most cases, documents show, replacing fixtures and installing filters – which has occurred at most but not yet all schools — has been effective in reducing lead levels, with many tests showing no detectable levels of lead in the water. But documents also show that there continue to be dramatic lead levels in a few samples taken at some locations.
Given all that, the district reportedly has no plans to make the switch back to city water anytime soon.
That’s according to Bruce Jordan, an official with the Michigan Education Association who met with Flint Community Schools superintendent Bilal Tawwab last week.
Jordan says the district is hesitant to get out in front of other Flint agencies and officials in terms of moving away from bottled water.
“The issue is that the school does not want to be the only one in Flint stating that the water is safe to drink,” says Jordan. “The superintendent stated that if the health officials of Flint, the city and various businesses were to jointly put out something … then he would consider it, but didn’t want to be the only entity in Flint telling that story.”
Part of the issue is perception. Teacher Bethany Dumanois echoes the concerns of many when she says she would be reluctant to drink the water even if the state and district say it is safe.
The districts lack of transparency in terms of keeping parents, students, teachers and the community in the dark when it comes to providing up-to-date information regarding water testing in schools.
Jordan says he was told that it could be at least a year and possibly longer before the district is ready to stop handing out bottled water and allow students to once again do what other children in schools across America do every day – take a sip of water from a fountain when they are thirsty.