Something really wrong happened here. Bronx Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott just announced the closing of the Bronx New School. Walcott said that the soil at the school– and the air that the kids breathe at the school–are soaked with a carcinogen known as trichloroethylene, or TCE. And not just a little bit of TCE. Contamination in the air was up to 10,000 times so called “safe” levels. [See this 8/19/11 media article]. The revelation that a school is contaminated is always jarring. Last week, I wrote about air contamination (high levels of lead) at a public elementary school in Chicago’s Pilsen community (see my blog from last week). That school’s 500 children are threatened by having to breathe this lead, and it was particularly galling to learn that Illinois environmental officials had long-resisted the requests of local families to test the air at the school. But, for as bad as the Pilsen situation is, this situation at the Bronx New School is even worse…..maybe the worst I have ever heard of. Why? One reason is that school officials knew since last February of the TCE contamination at the school–and then waited 6 months to tell parents about it. In other words, 300 kids went to the Bronx New School for most of last semester, at a time when school officials knew that it was not safe for them to be there. That’s an outrage. But even more outrageous is the fact that there should never have been a school there in the first place. The Bronx New School is, believe it or not, a former industrial plant that was known to have used TCE and other dangerous chemicals for perhaps as long as 70 years. Ignoring this huge red flag, the Board of Education leased the site 20 years ago. Then, despite knowing that it had been an industrial site, and despite a public record documenting the use there of dangerous chemicals, the Board evidently never bothered to do what any D+ science student would know to do: test the property before you start sending kids there for 7 hours a day. Here’s how reckless this is: in a terrific piece of reporting, Juan Gonzalez of the New York Daily News describes how he hired an environmental firm which, 24 hours later, had produced a 241-page report documenting the dangerous chemical history at the industrial site that would become the Bronx New School. In other words, Mr. Gonzalez discovered in a single day what the school board had failed to discover in twenty years. Rage and fear and guilt now dominate the thoughts of the parents who trusted school officials, and sent their children to the New Bronx School for the past 20 years. Those families–and evidently there were many–who have wondered whether the headaches, dizziness and other illnesses afflicting their children were connected to the school today have good reason to be afraid….and angry. Doctors are now advising that their children be tested for evidence of exposure to the chemicals known to pollute the soil and air at the school. Is there anything more awful? Sadly, what I have learned from years of fighting pollution and polluters, is that when children are in environmental harms’ way, it is irresponsible adults who have put them there. For the children at the Pilsen school, it’s a polluter down the road who is belching lead into the air that they breathe, and the so-called “environmental protectors” in Illinois government who so callously refused for years to take seriously these kids’ health. For the children at the New Bronx School, it’s the owner of the highly-contaminated industrial site who thought it would be OK to lease it out for a school, and, mainly, the apparently reckless people at the school board who–charged with protecting the lives of these children–never thought that their lives might be in danger at a school located on a toxin-laced industrial site. When we hear news like this, we often say, “there should be a law…..people should not be allowed to do this to children.” Well, as it turns out, we don’t need a new law. Right now–without putting any new laws on the books– people are not allowed to do this to children. There are environmental laws that forbid sending children to a school like this, for example. There are criminal laws, too. And, particularly in the case of the New Bronx School, prosecutors need to look hard at using them. All over this country, there are laws that put people in jail for “recklessly endangering” the lives of children. These laws forbid adults from dimwittedly putting children in harms’ way. Especially when the adults have the duty to keep those kids safe. After all, these children are not strangers to the adults who run the school board and the school. They are the very children whom those adults are paid to protect. I’m having a hard time imagining the excuse that will work here. And I’m having a hard time imagining that, unless someone really gets punished for what the adults did to the children at the Bronx New School, we will be a society that can truly claim to give a damn about protecting its children.