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STIFF-ARM CITY: Chancellor and Department of Education Break Promise to Families of Highly Contaminated Bronx New School

Before we get to the broken promise, let’s first re-cap DOE’s disregard for the health of the children who have attended The Bronx New School for the last 20 years [feel free to visit my previous blogs on this subject dated: 8/30, 8/26, and 8/22. ] (1) In 1992, DOE signs a 20-year lease to convert an old industrial site – – with a history of heavy use of toxic chemicals – –  into an elementary school (which became The Bronx New School). (2) Even though there are abundant, publicly-available records showing that the site may be contaminated, DOE does not take the couple of hours needed to find and read these records. (3) Likewise, DOE does not test – – at a cost of only a few thousand dollars – –  the old industrial site, to find out if it was contaminated… before DOE sends young children, teachers and administrators there for 8 hours every day. (4) Nearly twenty years go by.  Many hundreds of students attend, and then graduate from, The Bronx New School.  Still no testing. (5) Until January 2011. That’s when the 20-year lease on The Bronx New School site is up, and DOE wants to release.  DOE says that now it must do environmental testing.  Before a new lease can be signed.  Note that, for the past 20 years, concern for the health of the students never made DOE think that it should do environmental testing.  DOE says that there’s a law that mandates testing before re-leasing a building.  Evidently, there is no law that forbids making a school out of a contaminated old industrial site. . . or that mandates reading public records or testing to see if a site is safe before sending children there in the first place. (6) Environmental tests taken in January of this year – – and then again in March, April, and May – – reveal extremely high levels of a chemical known as “TCE” in the air in the cafeteria, hallway, and basement of the school.  Levels up to 10,000 times what NewYork City’s own Department of Health says is safe. TCE is one nasty chemical.  It’s a known cancer-causer.   But it’s colorless and odorless, so you don’t see or smell that it’s in the air.  Adults, and especially children, should not be breathing TCE.  The immune systems of children do not process toxins well, and so the toxins do more damage in children than in adults. (7) But DOE does not tell the parents of the children attending the school, or the school staff, about the TCE they are breathing.  Instead, DOE had the kids and staff finish out the school year (another 6 months), continuing to breathe the air that DOE (but no one else) knew was laced with a highly toxic chemical. (8) In early August of this year – – well after the end of the school year – – a seemingly contrite Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott tells horrified parents for the first time of the TCE contamination, and that it is so bad that their children will no longer be attending school there. And then, on August 18, in response to public demands that former Bronx New School students be located and informed that their health might have been jeopardized while they attended the school, Wolcott promised two things.  First, he promised to make a master list of former students, so that they could be kept abreast of developments about the contamination at the school.  Second, he promised to hold additional informational meetings, presumably to share new information as it became available, and to answer questions from these suddenly very worried families.  And they have good reason to be worried, alarmed even.  The TCE levels detected at the school earlier this year – – if they are representative of past levels – – are high enough to cause serious illness to those breathing them for hours each day.  Also, because many years can pass between exposure to TCE and manifestation of the illness it can cause, students who attended the school years ago are right to believe that good health today does not mean they are “out of the woods” for contracting TCE-related disease. Walcott’s promise of a list and informational meetings was made to a deserving and emotionally vulnerable audience. . . to quell their outrage and anguish.  The promise of the list was especially important.  The list would serve as a database of alumni of the New Bronx School, to allow for medical monitoring of those former students.  It would keep track of sickness patterns, and help these families force the state to take responsibility for medical treatment if it can be shown that a former student’s illness was caused by exposure to TCE at the school. Walcott’s promise was made almost 4 months ago.  But today?  No list.  And no meetings. Current and former Bronx New School families have reminded Walcott of his promises. . . in phone calls and public statements they have made to try and reclaim his and DOE’s attention.  But Walcott will not meet with them (instead meeting only with a select group of parents comprising the Parents’ Association – – a meeting which reportedly did not include parents of the former students).  [See this December 21 Riverdale Press article: Parents say DOE ignored them after school toxin exposure] What’s going on with Walcott and DOE?  Why are they hiding from these families?  More importantly, what are they hiding from these families? Why make promises to such vulnerable people, and then break them?  There is no one in the entire New York school system more deserving of DOE’s time and attention than these families. Since 1992, DOE failed in its most fundamental responsibility to protect the children of The New Bronx School.  Now, it’s failing to protect them. . . again.  How dare DOE stiff-arm these families as they try to understand what has happened to their children.

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