In early 2011, several students at Bronx elementary school P.S. 51 started reporting to the school nurse that they had headaches.
Some P.S. 51 parents had noticed many assorted illnesses among children at the school over the years, including stomach pain and coughing, but no one knew what to make of the trend. In addition, construction had recently started to build 10 new high-rise condominiums on the same block, and some parents and teachers found the noise and dust were making classrooms unusable or causing breathing problems. Parents and teachers questioned whether the school would be relocated so that students and staff would not have to come to this unsafe school environment every day.
The school building’s lease was scheduled to expire that same year, and the renewal process required an assessment of toxins on the property. The Department of Education (DOE) began to perform air tests at the school after hours, starting in January of 2011. The testing revealed dangerous levels of toxins, well in excess of State standards, which were likely left over from chemicals used in the school building’s past as a lamp factory. The factory had left behind trichloroethene, or TCE, a chemical which can cause cancer and other long-term health effects. The DOE had not tested the air when it first leased the building 20 years earlier, exposing students and school staff to these toxins daily for years.
The DOE did not tell the school principal, teachers, or parents about the ongoing environmental testing or its results for six months, while school remained in session. By the time the community learned about the air testing and toxicity, it was summer, when the DOE chose a new site for the school and released a report about the environmental hazards in the original building. The reports were too technical for community members to understand, and parents were left confused, fearing for their kids’ health and safety.
Marisol Carrero’s son, Brandon, attended P.S. 51 before and after the school was relocated. “In October, we were still trying to figure out what the environmental reports meant” about P.S. 51, says Ms. Carrero. “The DOE didn’t explain to us what the reports were saying or what they meant for us—what the toxin was, or what the health concerns would be for our kids.”
“DOE was under no obligation to inform the school community about being in the process of doing environmental testing, so they didn’t,” says Allison Manuel, Lead Community Organizer at Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition (NWBCCC), a community group that many P.S. 51 parents joined. “You don’t want to do multiple tests as if you can test the problem away before you inform the people who are directly impacted by these toxins.”
While the P.S. 51 community struggled to get information and understand how to protect their kids’ health, New York City’s School Construction Authority was implementing an aggressive plan to relieve overcrowding in public schools by establishing 56 new school buildings over 5 years. Because of the scarcity of affordable, clean land in New York City, schools are often sited on property likely to be contaminated with toxins, like the former lamp factory that became P.S. 51. Because of these past uses, the school sites could be contaminated with toxins such as lead, arsenic, and a range of carcinogenic compounds.
Communities across New York City continue to face difficulties establishing safe and healthy school environments, including issues with expansion, relocation, construction, and toxic lighting. For the previous five years, New York Lawyers for the Public Interest (NYLPI) had been working with community boards at a number of New York City schools to empower parents, community members, and elected officials to get information and ensure school buildings are safe, healthy learning environments. However, the scale of the problem meant there was more work to be done, and NYLPI had reached only a fraction of the contaminated sites proposed to become schools.
With support from NYHealth, NYLPI expanded its work on healthy schools and reached more districts where new school sites were being considered, including P.S. 51, to provide assistance and helpful materials. NYLPI instituted ongoing trainings for community boards, parents, teachers, elected officials, and other school community members to help them learn to navigate the complex school siting system and advocate for the information they need. To reach more schools, NYLPI also developed and distributed a series of practical tool kits that explain how community members can get involved in safe and healthy school siting, construction, and renovation practices.
NYLPI staff met with Ms. Carrero, NWBCCC, and other P.S. 51 parents and community members to help them advocate for a healthy school environment and identify ways to get involved in the school siting and environmental testing processes. NYLPI provided the P.S. 51 community with educational materials, including the tool kits, and helped decode the environmental reports so that community members could better understand what toxins were in the air at P.S. 51 and what the health implications could be for students and teachers.
“This [original location] was not a building that should have ever been used as a school,” says Mark Ladov, Staff Attorney at NYLPI. “We wanted to help provide parents with a realistic sense of the level of health risks.”
New York City Council members subsequently reached out to NYLPI for recommendations on best practices for healthy school siting, construction, and renovation. NYLPI provided Council members with the educational materials it had developed under its NYHealth-funded project, including the tool kits designed to enable community involvement. In early 2015, the Council passed new legislation, signed into law by Mayor Bill de Blasio, designed to prevent future situations like P.S. 51. The law requires the DOE to inform parents and school employees within seven days of any environmental test results that show potential health threats in public schools or proposed sites. It also requires the DOE to publish all environmental inspections to its website, and to publish biannual reports for the City Council and the public summarizing the test results of every environmental inspection and site assessment, as well as plans to mitigate risks.
“I’ve spoken to so many parents, and I can’t tell you how relieved they are that something like this law exists out there,” says Ms. Carrero.
“With such a lack of transparent information, it left room for fear to fill the vacuum,” says Mr. Ladov. “Parents were rightfully concerned. An important part of our role [at NYLPI] was to be on their side, and take this energy and frustration to help the next set of parents down the line.”