School Climate & Safety

Schools Urged To Be Wary Of Polluted Sites

By Alan Richard — March 21, 2001 4 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Laws should be strengthened to protect children from attending schools built on or near chemically polluted sites, and districts should follow stricter environmental guidelines when selecting the future location of school buildings, a report by a national advocacy campaign urges.

The report, “Poisoned Schools: Invisible Threats, Visible Actions,” was scheduled for release March 19 by the Child Proofing Our Communities: Poisoned School Campaign, a group of 43 organizations dedicated to protecting children from exposure to environmental health hazards in schools, homes, and communities.

Lois Gibbs, who led protests some 20 years ago to clean up a toxic-waste site in Love Canal, N.Y., wrote the 79-page report with her colleagues at the nonprofit Center for Health, Environment, and Justice, based in Falls Church, Va. The report includes more than two dozen case studies of schools built on or near contaminated sites, or where children have been exposed to pesticide use in and around school buildings. Ms. Gibbs said many of the examples came from calls to her office during the past 18 months.

For More Information

The report, “Poisoned Schools: Invisible Threats, Visable Actions,” is available from the Center for Health, Environment, and Justice

“It just makes me totally outraged,” she said in an interview.

The report points to rising rates of cancer among children and the pervasiveness of childhood asthma, which the authors see as evidence that polluted school sites can create possible health hazards.

Relocating a School

The nation’s best-known case of a polluted school site is the Belmont Learning Center in the Los Angeles Unified School District, which has cost the 723,000-student district more than $250 million so far. (“Sticker Shock: $200 Million for an L.A. High School,” April 7, 1999.)

The huge high school building, which was to include offices and retail stores near downtown Los Angeles, remains only a shell, unfinished more than three years after construction began. The Los Angeles school board continues to debate the future of the school, located on an abandoned oil field, and a local prosecutor recently announced possible new evidence of broken environmental laws.

Another case has unfolded in the River Valley school district on the edge of Marion, Ohio, where school leaders are combining federal, state, and local money for the $43.5 million relocation of a combined high school-middle school campus and athletic fields from the current site atop a contaminated former military- supply depot.

Thomas G. Shade, the superintendent of the 1,750-student district, said a six-acre section of the 78-acre campus has been fenced off to prevent exposure to high levels of contaminants in the soil.

Cancer rates among students in the school are “statistically high,” he said, but no direct evidence has been found to link the illnesses with the contamination of the site. Case studies of the sick students are continuing.

Mr. Shade said state environmental officials have tested the site regularly and assure him that the campus is safe.

Nevertheless, the district has worked to relocate the campus, and it secured state and federal financial help. Local taxpayers also approved a $19.6 million bond issue in November to pay for some of the new construction, in addition to building two elementary schools.

Ms. Gibbs of the Child Proofing Our Communities campaign contends that states and districts can avoid such problems through an early and complete assessment of any potential school site to check for dangers, including asking questions about the site’s history.

Avoiding Trouble

The report recommends that districts adopt strict standards for selecting school sites, including full community participation in the process, a complete evaluation of the sites’ environmental histories, and a prohibition on school construction within 1,000 feet of any known contamination.

But Ms. Gibbs acknowledged that such standards will pose a challenge in some industrial and urban communities. “It’s not a cheap endeavor,” she said.

At the state level, the report suggests that states follow California’s example. Legislation passed in 1999 requires the state to help districts conduct environmental testing. It also created a more efficient permit process through the California Department of Toxic Substances and Control, which helps determine the safety of school sites.

But for school leaders who make decisions about construction projects, the possibility of more regulations may be the last thing they would want.

“I’m not so sure there’s not laws already on the books” that would prevent the kind of contamination found in River Valley, said Mr. Shade, the local superintendent. Although he supports any effort to guarantee students’ safety, he’s not convinced that additional bureaucratic solutions would help.

Julie Underwood, the general counsel for the National School Boards Association in Alexandria, Va., said the issue of contaminated school sites hasn’t been a major focus of her organization’s student health and safety initiatives.

“It may be an increasing concern if we’re going to start building [schools across the nation] again,” she said.

Ms. Gibbs said she understands how cumbersome new rules may be, but she insists that students’ health is worth it.

She recalls a visit to the home of a parent activist in Ohio, where she met three students with leukemia.

“They all had their bone-marrow donors there,” Ms. Gibbs said. “Their lives are totally destroyed and it didn’t have to happen.”

A version of this article appeared in the March 21, 2001 edition of Education Week as Schools Urged To Be Wary Of Polluted Sites

Events

Jobs October 2021 Virtual Career Fair for Teachers and K-12 Staff
Find teaching jobs and other jobs in K-12 education at the EdWeek Top School Jobs virtual career fair.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Data Webinar
Using Integrated Analytics To Uncover Student Needs
Overwhelmed by data? Learn how an integrated approach to data analytics can help.

Content provided by Instructure
Classroom Technology Webinar How Pandemic Tech Is (and Is Not) Transforming K-12 Schools
The COVID-19 pandemic—and the resulting rise in virtual learning and big investments in digital learning tools— helped educators propel their technology skills to the next level. Teachers have become more adept at using learning management

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

School Climate & Safety Can Districts Legally Mandate Student Vaccines? No, Two New Lawsuits Claim
Two large California districts are being sued over policies requiring vaccinations for schoolchildren by the end of 2021.
5 min read
Diego Cervantes, 16, gets a shot of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine at the First Baptist Church of Pasadena on May 14, 2021, in Pasadena, Calif.
Diego Cervantes, 16, gets a shot of the Pfizer vaccine at the First Baptist Church of Pasadena last spring in Pasadena, Calif.
Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP
School Climate & Safety From Our Research Center Higher Student Morale Linked to In-Person Instruction, Survey Shows
Educators see student morale rising since last spring, according to a new EdWeek Research Center survey.
4 min read
Second-grade students raise their hands during a math lesson with teacher Carlin Daniels at Pulaski Elementary School in Meriden, Conn., Thursday, Sept. 30, 2021.
Second grade students raise their hands during a math lesson in Meriden, Conn., Sept. 30.
Dave Zajac/Record-Journal via AP
School Climate & Safety Law Against 'Disorderly Conduct' in Schools Led to Unfair Student Arrests, Judge Rules
The South Carolina ruling is a model for other states where students are still being arrested for minor incidents, an attorney said.
6 min read
Scales of justice and Gavel on wooden table.
Pattanaphong Khuankaew/iStock
School Climate & Safety A Rise in School Shootings Leads to Renewed Calls for Action
A return to in-person learning means a return to school shootings, advocates warn.
5 min read
Families depart the Mansfield ISD Center For The Performing Arts Center where families were reunited with Timberview High School Students, Wednesday, Oct. 6, 2021 in Mansfield, Texas. Police in Texas have arrested a student suspected of opening fire during a fight at his Dallas-area high school, leaving four people injured.
Families were reunited Oct. 6 in Mansfield, Texas, after a student opened fire at Timberview High School in Arlington, leaving four people injured. Data show that the start of this school year has been particularly violent compared to previous years.
Tony Gutierrez/AP