A Right to Know: School Environmental Health Hazards

Monday, July 20, 2015
by Dana Laventure, Communications Associate and Brian Byrd, Program Officer, New York State Health Foundation
For any funder who wants to prove that a grant made a positive impact, and for grantees who want to show results, a grant’s short timeframe can feel more like a burden than a useful constraint. True measurement of impact takes time—often years, usually well after the grant has closed—before a project’s impact becomes evident.
However, foundation and nonprofit boards are growing more accustomed to the idea that change takes time, and that measurement will have to continue beyond the end of a grant period. This was the case when the New York State Health Foundation (NYSHealth) made a grant in 2011 to New York Lawyers for the Public Interest (NYLPI) to expand its work on environmental health and New York City public school siting.
The New York City Department of Education (DOE) runs the largest school district in the U.S., serving 1.1 million students in more than 1,800 public schools. New York City's School Construction Authority (SCA) has an aggressive plan to relieve overcrowding in these public schools by establishing 56 new school buildings over 5 years. However, communities across New York City face difficulties establishing safe and healthy school environments, including issues with expansion, relocation, construction, and toxic lighting. Because of the scarcity of affordable, clean land in New York City, schools are often sited on property likely to be contaminated with toxins. Because of these past uses, the school sites could be contaminated with toxins such as lead, arsenic, and a range of carcinogenic compounds.
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. Nearby construction that had started that January to build 10 new high-rise condominiums on the same block was also causing disruptions, 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.
Yet, unknown to the school’s principal, teachers, and parents, air testing by DOE had also recently found dangerous levels of toxins, well in excess of New York State standards, which were left over from the school location's history as a lamp factory. While air testing continued at the school after hours, the DOE failed to make this public, but instead suggested that the construction site was the source of the kids’ headaches.
Six months had passed before the DOE relocated the school and released reports about the environmental hazards. Unless your background was in science, the reports were too technical to understand. DOE also chose a new location for the school without involving the community in the decision. 
Marisol Carrero’s son Brandon attended P.S. 51 before and after the relocation. “In October, we were still trying to figure out what the environmental reports meant” about P.S. 51, Ms. Carrero says. “The DOE didn’t define to us what the reports were saying and 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, 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. These are problems where engagement, transparency, and oversight make all the difference.”
Historically, chances for communities to participate in school siting decisions were limited, at best. Despite the serious health risks posed, many New York City school sites do not go through a robust environmental review process that would include the consideration of alternate sites, measures for mitigation, and opportunities for public comment or review. Instead, the SCA is charged with nearly complete school siting responsibility. Site plans are difficult to evaluate without expertise, leaving community board and City Council members in the dark as they attempt to protect the health of school kids and staff.  Community board members, many of whom are parents, face pressure to approve quickly or run the risk that a new school will not be built in their district.
“Getting information wasn’t the only problem,” says Ms. Carrero. “We needed someone to translate the reports to us.”
With support from NYSHealth, New York Lawyers for the Public Interest (NYLPI) reached out to P.S. 51 and other school districts where new school sites were being considered to offer training, assistance, and educational materials to empower parents and other community members to protect kids’ health. NYLPI translated the reports and helped Ms. Carrero and other parents understand what the toxins were, what the health risks would be for their kids, and how to get involved with the ongoing school siting process.
“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.”
However, the scale of the problem meant there was more work to be done: NYLPI had reached only a fraction of the contaminated sites proposed for schools. As the full scope of the many issues in developing and maintaining healthy school environments became clear, NYLPI’s project expanded. The grant had three goals, and NYSHealth program staff worked with NYLPI to expand each one accordingly:
  • Tool Kits
    One goal of NYSHealth’s grant to NYLPI was to develop a manual and training curriculum on healthy school siting and reach additional school districts where new school sites were being considered. To reach more schools, NYLPI expanded this manual into a series of practical tool kits on safe and healthy school siting practices to empower parents, communities, and elected officials to ensure school buildings are safe, healthy learning environments. 
  • Training 
    NYLPI instituted 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. By expanding its audience, NYLPI found its advocacy for healthy schools became more effective.
  • Strategy Summit for Healthy Schools
    The grant originally planned for a one-time summit, but NYLPI quickly realized that instead, it should respond to the growing need in a number of communities citywide for ongoing technical assistance, education, training, and materials. Because of ongoing interest, NYLPI now serves as an ongoing resource to communities encountering problems with healthy school environments.
NYLPI’s distribution of the tool kits and materials was instrumental in reaching new communities. NYLPI handed out copies of its “Safe School Renovation” publication at meetings with community education councils and other parent groups, and mailed copies to every City Council member in New York City. NYLPI also mailed information about the full tool kit on healthy school environments to community boards and community education councils throughout the City, while continuing to distribute these materials as part of ongoing trainings with parents on school environment and health issues.
Although the grant ended more than a year ago, its impact continues. In early 2015, the City 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 7 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. 
Parents and school communities continue to reach out to NYLPI for assistance with ongoing issues related to school siting and safe construction, as well as construction of new schools to relieve overcrowding. The grant also brought more issues related to healthy school environments to NYLPI’s attention, such as unsafe trailers, lack of physical education, and toxic lighting units throughout New York City schools. Unfortunately, the practices of locating schools on or near contaminated land and using unsafe materials in construction or renovation are not limited to New York City; these are both statewide and national problems. As new schools are built, many communities are facing similar issues and discovering the need to develop healthy school siting and community engagement practices, particularly in urban regions and former manufacturing towns. The project established NYLPI as a resource to communities seeking a voice in developing healthy school environments across New York State and should serve as a model for similar efforts outside New York City.
When we first read NYLPI’s final report written in 2014 about the grant’s outcomes, our initial assessment that this was a solid project with a relatively small impact. A year later, we see a much larger and broader impact. This is a challenge we face as funders: we often view final reports within the confines of the goals of the grant, but rarely do we revisit a grant to learn what has happened one, two or even five years later.


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