The Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition believes that when common people who are directly affected by issues in our community have access to the necessary information, tools, and support, they can create sound and innovative solutions. All too often, low-income people of color encounter roadblocks to obtaining data from public and private entities whose broken policies have created the problems our communities face—and whose budgets will be called upon to resolve them. In August of 2011, parents of PS 51 Bronx New School students were outraged to discover that for 6 months, the DOE had withheld Indoor Air Quality reports indicating that their school had readings of a known carcinogen tetrachloroethylene (TCE) at 10 to 10,000 times higher than State allowable levels. TCE has been known to have serious effects on the central nervous system, effects on the cranial nerves, effects on the liver, kidney and heart as well as effects on hearing, the skin and other nervous systems. Parents who wanted the full story were left to sift through a 120-page report in highly technical language that was only made available in English—even as a large portion of the school community were Spanish-only speakers. While PS 51 Parents United’s organizing efforts succeeded in getting a meeting between Chancellor Walcott and the Parents Association at the new school site, parents of PS 51 alumni continued to struggle to access basic notification about the contamination their children were exposed to. As a result, former PS 51 parents took their frustrations before the New York City Council at a Public Oversight Hearing on the Division of Family and Community Engagement.
“The New York City Department of Education gets an ‘F’ in Parent Engagement when it comes to the building contamination of PS 51 Bronx New School,” testified PS 51 Parents United Kelly King-Lewis, parent of two PS 51 alumni. “Chancellor Walcott has repeatedly apologized to us. Yet he has consistently refused to meet with parents of PS 51 alumni—even though they were exposed to the very same toxins as children who are currently enrolled. The time for apologies is over. It is now time for action.”
NWBCCC believes in the provision of comprehensive, transparent, and relatable data from independent parties who are experts in their fields. As a result, parent leaders worked with the New York Lawyers for the Public Interest to educate themselves and their base about legal provisions surrounding environmental review of school sites. They worked with the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health and various medical experts to educate themselves about what medical research says regarding their children’s likelihood of developing a disease later in life given the toxic levels to which they were exposed. Both entities have assisted the parents in developing their campaign strategy to ensure that the demands they make of their government agencies and departments are specific, well-researched, and realistic. Parent leaders worked with Lenny Siegel, Director of the Center for Environmental Public Oversight, to review reports generated by the SCA and the NYS Department of Environmental Consultation regarding the contamination and plans for its remediation in order to digest their extensive assessments into succinct briefs in laymen terms. They hosted several informational sessions to educate the community about vapor intrusion and health impacts related to TCE exposure. They jointly presented before the New York State Department of Health and New York State Department of Environmental Conservation about their priorities for responsible clean-up of the contamination and recommendations for medical monitoring of students and other exposed parties. The parents, in turn, were invited to share their experiences at a National Vapor Intrusion Conference in March of 2012.
On May 17th, the Community Education Council of District 10 unanimously passed a resolution in support of PS 51 Parents United’s demands for a meeting with Chancellor Walcott after hearing testimony from the parent leaders. The following week, 25 parents and youth disrupted the May 23rd Panel for Educational Policy to demand that Chancellor Walcott address their concerns and resubmit their formal demand for a meeting: “We went to [the Community Education Council] with the hope that parent engagement is still alive in the DOE. We come to you with that same hope. We are not alarmists nor do we bring empty criticisms against the DOE. We are a group of committed, concerned parents who entrusted and continue to entrust the DOE with the care and education of our children each day. What we seek is full, meaningful, and transparent communication and engagement from the DOE around our concerns.”
Alan Gary, NWBCCC Leadership Council Representative and parent of a PS 51 alumnus, testified, “Chancellor Walcott, you might think the public has a short memory and perhaps they do, but parents do not. If you ever have any aspirations of running for higher office, it’s not going to happen. Not in this town. ‘Until you do right by me, everything you even think about ‘gonna fail.’”
The parents’ actions finally forced the leadership of the DOE, School Construction Authority (SCA), and New York City Department of Health (NYCDOH) to reckon with them. On July 11th, parent leaders and NYLPI met with Deputy Chancellor of the Division of Operations Kathleen Grimm, Director of the Division of Family and Community Engagement Jesse Mojica, General Counsel of the SCA Ross Holden, and Director of the Environmental and Occupational Disease Epidemiology Program at NYCDOH Nathanial Graber. There, they demanded the formal notification of all parents of PS 51 alumni about their children’s exposure to the toxic contamination, the establishment of a medical registry to monitor all who were exposed, and the creation of a protocol to ensure parents will receive timely notification of environmental test results in any NYC public school moving forward. As a result, the SCA sent out notification to 350 new families and agreed to meet again after the release of the NYSDOH health report for PS 51 to discuss health interventions for students and staff. However they refused to create a communications protocol that would be all-inclusive of all NYC public schools.
The struggles of PS 51 Parents United for access to transparent communication from the DOE and SCA have lead them to initiate a legislative campaign with NYLPI to pass a bill in the NY City Council that would mandate the SCA to make public the results of any environmental investigation in schools in a timely manner. PS 51 is not the only school to have experienced toxic exposure as a result of the DOE’s practice of siting schools on contaminated sites or in buildings with former industrial uses. Their struggle has connected them with at least three other similar cases in the last three years at the Mott Haven Educational Campus (Bronx), the Soundview Educational Campus (Bronx) and also at PS 18 and PS 278 (both in Inwood). Furthermore, the DOE plans to create 30,000 new school seats over the next five years. By 2014 leasing will meet one third of its total capacity needs – that means that one third of all New York City’s schools will be located on leased properties, many of them formerly industrial sites. Parents believe that an informed public is an empowered public and that when people are provided with the necessary and trustworthy facts, they will use it to make good decisions and create solutions—not chaos. Their priorities for the legislation are as follows:
- POSTING OF DATA. Clear and expeditious timeframe by which the DOE has to post online the results of any indoor air quality testing and sampling data for groundwater, soil gas, soil, and ambient air at each school site. This information should be available online on the DOE’s website as well as in hard copy form at each school. It should be made clear that indoor air quality testing related to school renovations (e.g. asbestos removal, removal of mold, replacement of ceilings, etc.) are also subject to this bill.
- POSTING OF RELEVANT ENVIRONMETNAL INVESTIGATION DOCUMENTS. Important documents relating to the environmental condition of each school site (newly purchased or leased) must also be made available on the school’s website. These documents include the Phase I and Phase II environmental investigations, indoor air quality tests, remedial measures to address existing contamination, site management plan, etc. In addition to the full reports, the SCA must provide summaries of the findings in language that is accessible to parents.
- NOTIFICIATION. Given the disturbing situation at PS 51 (parents were kept in the dark about very high TCE levels in the school for 7 months and only notified a few weeks before the school was shut down), the bill should also require affirmative notification of school staff and parents when the test results exceed state guidelines. The DOE should notify school staff and parents of results that exceed state guidelines within two weeks of receiving test results.
Parents worked with NYLPI and CEPO to advise the office of City Council Speaker Quinn during the drafting of the bill. They are currently conducting legislative briefings with all Bronx City Councilmembers and with Education Committee Chair Councilman Robert Jackson to garner support for legislation that reflects their priorities. In 2013 they will publicly launch their legislative campaign to build public pressure towards its introduction.
“Now we are about to see the introduction of a landmark piece of legislation to the City Council,” said Ginette Sosa, NWBCCC Board Representative for PS 51 Parents United and parent of three PS 51 alumni. “When we win in passing legislation, it will change the way the SCA sites schools and informs the public about the environmental health of its facilities. Every parent has the right to know about toxins in their children’s schools.”