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PLAYING CHICKEN WITH CONTAMINATION: Bronx New School Officials Show How Not To Protect Children

Basin City, Washington got it right. Last Thursday, Basin City took tests of the system that feeds water into the local elementary school, and found E. coli bacteria.  So, school officials immediately notified the parents of the children attending Basin City Elementary School.  They also decided that the school would be closed right away (on Monday) and "until further notice, for the safety of the students and staff."  [See this Tri-City Herald article of 8/28/11] This is what responsible adults in charge of a school do.  They put the safety of the children first; they tell the parents what's going on.  When in the slightest doubt about whether the environment of the school poses a danger to the children, they close the school until there is no longer any doubt.  I'm sure this decision caused great inconvenience to the Basin City school children, their families, teachers at the school, administrators, etc.  And it will probably cost the school district a good deal of money, too....especially if the school is closed for any significant period of time.  But it was the right thing to do.  When it comes to children's health, you protect first, and deal with the financial and convenience issues later. Now, I don't mention this to applaud the Basin City officials.  They simply did what they are paid to do.  Protecting the school's children is their first job; when they do that job correctly, it's to be expected.   It's not heroic. No, I mention Basin City because it stands in such shocking contrast to the reckless behavior of the adults charged with protecting the children who attend the Bronx New School in New York. Beginning in January of this year--and then again in March, April and May--officials in the New York City Department of Education, like their counterparts in Basin City, Washington, got back test results showing that something was very wrong in the school's environment.  In the case of the Bronx New School, it was contamination in the air at the school.  Contamination by a chemical known as "TCE". Bronx New School officials also learned this: TCE causes cancer.  It is especially dangerous to children, and especially dangerous when in the air.....because the children breathe it all the time. Worse yet: the levels of the TCE discovered at the school were up to 10,000 times what the City's own Department of Health says is safe. 10,000 times. So, they got the kids out of the school, right?  They told their parents, right?  A no-brainer, right? Sadly, no.  What the Bronx New School officials did was as opposite as could be from the decision makers in Basin City.  In a display of horrifyingly bad judgment, they kept the kids in the school until the end of the school year--for a full 6 months after the discovery of the dangerous TCE contamination.  Foolishly, they pretended that they could sweep the TCE out of the school's air at night, by opening all the windows... only to close the windows up in the morning, and allow the TCE to re-accumulate in the school's cafeteria, hallway and classrooms in time for the kids to breathe it the next day. Oh, and they kept all of this a secret from the parents of those kids.  They only told the parents after the school year was over.  When it was too late for the parents to do anything to protect their kids. For this, the Bronx New School officials have been justifiably blasted by the parents, and by public officials, like New York City Council Member Oliver Koppell.  Koppell labeled the failure to tell parents about the contamination both "egregious" and "totally unacceptable", and said that the delay in informing parents "has created anger and distrust among the parents.....and concerns about their children's health."  [See this BoogieDowner post dated 8/25/11] School officials are now lamely defending their inaction and secrecy by saying that they didn't have the "final scientific determination" until near the end of the school year....so, they couldn't really do anything before then to protect the kids, or even warn their parents. Really? What is it about a TCE hit of 10,000 times the "safe" level that makes you think you can, or should, wait for some consultant's "final" report before you can tell the parents, or protect their kids?  And if you had no "final" scientific determination to confirm that the situation was indeed dangerous, why would you open the windows at night, and try to blow the TCE out of the school? At the end of the day, it's really not about "final scientific determinations", is it?  I'll bet that the Basin City folks still don't have a "final scientific determination" about their water contamination. But, they didn't need one.  More than a consultant's written "final" report, they have common sense and decency....and a basic respect for the community's children and their parents. That is what's missing at the Bronx New School.

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