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Let’s Get The Lead Out Of Our Schools

By News Creatives Authors , in Leadership , at November 4, 2021

The challenge of advancing quality education opportunity in our nation is unceasing. It typically and unfortunately involves issues of race and income. Those of us who engage in these efforts for education equity and opportunity often find ourselves focused on issues of fair and adequate resources, teacher quality and teaching shortages, internet access, disparate treatment of students in discipline, and even the effects of nutrition on a child’s readiness or ability to learn. It is quite frustrating that to achieve our goals we must also focus our attention on the harm done to students by the very buildings in which they congregate to receive education. The mountain of data on the harm to children caused by lead poisoning is undeniable and obscene.

In the 1970’s, awareness of the neurological damage associated with lead poisoning resulted in banning such substances as lead-based paint, leaded gasoline, and leaded plumbing fixtures and pipes. While much progress has been made since then, too many children still attend schools in which they drink water from fountains and wash their hands in sinks connected with old, existing lead pipes.

With so many issues with which we have to contend around promoting the best opportunity for our children to learn, how is it that we continue to find ourselves sending children to school to receive an education in buildings that make them sick?

The continuing sadness of this is that this harm is visited upon the same students for whom education equity and opportunity have been and continue to be elusive. Studies have found that African American children, particularly those from low-income families, tend to have the highest lead levels in their blood.

The notorious Flint Michigan case highlights this fact. While I am glad that groups like the Education Law Center, which helped to litigate the case on behalf of Flint parents and their children, are available to fight for children harmed by lead poisoning, states and school districts should be proactive, not addressing the problem only after losing in litigation.

One way that school districts can and should be proactively protecting children from this serious threat is by testing lead levels in water. Far too few are doing so. A 2018 report by the federal government’s General Accounting Office (GAO) revealed that 41 percent of school districts (serving 12 million students) had not tested their water for lead in the previous two years. Another 16 percent of school districts didn’t know whether they had tested for lead. Alarmingly, of those that had tested their water for lead, more than a third (37 percent) found elevated lead levels in their water.

Far too many of these schools serve student populations that are primarily Black and Brown and from low-income families.

We are all aware that you cannot address an issue if you simply close your eyes and turn away. And we cannot afford to close our eyes and turn away from the children who are most vulnerable. One organization that is working to open eyes to the dangers of lead poisoning and encouraging school districts and other entities to test for lead is RTI, an independent nonprofit research institute based in North Carolina.

Through its Clean Water for US Kids initiative, which also has state-based initiatives in Georgia and North Carolina, RTI provides kits and instructions for collecting water samples to test for lead levels and conducts tests of that water to determine the presence and concentration of lead. (If lead is found, RTI provides recommendations for action to minimize the exposure to lead.) RTI also publishes the public results of the tests so that concerned parents and others are able to find out what the lead levels are in the districts where their children attend school.

As civil rights organizations fight for adequate resources in public education, for inclusive and focused governance of our public schools, and for the elimination of discriminatory disciplinary practices, we must also be mindful of the reality of lead poisoning and the impact it has on students’ ability to learn. Too often, students who are exposed to lead are in schools with too few resources, unstable governance, and other challenges, pushing these already vulnerable students even further from the opportunities that high-quality education offers.

Lead poisoning has no place in the 21st Century in a nation blessed with our level of resources and technological advancements. As a nation, we should quickly move on this issue to remove it from the far more complicated and multifaceted challenges associated with providing the best possible education for each and every child and ensure they have the opportunities they deserve.

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