lingering chemical concerns

Parents: New safety issues at school moved from toxic campus

Alan Gary criticizes how the Department of Education response to the discovery of toxins at P.S. 51 while son Nathanial, 11, left, an alumnus of the school, holds a sign that reads "Toxic, Keep Out"

Renewing criticism of how the Department of Education handled safety concerns at their former building, parents from P.S. 51 in the Bronx say their new site isn’t up to par, either.

That was the message that parents and community activists brought to Wednesday night’s Panel for Educational Policy meeting at the Bronx High School for Business. At a press conference outside the meeting and during the shorter-than-usual meeting itself, they charged that the city still has not done enough to ensure safety for P.S. 51’s students and teachers.

The city relocated P.S. 51 in August after detecting dangerous levels of a cancer-causing chemical at the original school building. The city detected the toxic chemical in February but did not disclose the discovery to families until this summer.

“We demand that protocol be put in place to remove students from toxic sites immediately, not five or six months after a problem is discovered,” said Alan Gary, whose son, Nathanial, is a former P.S. 51 student. “We believe it’s the parents’ decision to decide whether or not to send their kids to a school. Dennis Walcott, how dare you? You took away the rights of parents to protect their children by not informing us.”

Parents at the press conference called on the DOE to register each student who was exposed to the chemical, called trichloroethylene or TCE, and monitor their medical conditions over time — something the teachers union has said it will do for teachers who worked in the building.

Kelly King-Lewis pulled her daughter, Saqirah, out of school at P.S. 51 in 2009 after the eight-year-old, who was six at the time, complained of headaches, a symptom of TCE exposure, “constantly,” and said she was organizing parents around their concerns because her eldest daughter spent six years at P.S. 51 before graduating in 2010. Now she is worried her daughters may suffer long-term health effects.

“We should have medical monitoring to or children because we don’t know if there is going to be a physical effect later on down the line,” she said.

She said she is concerned that a routine test found traces of another chemical, called perchloroethene, or PCE, in the new school building, which housed a Catholic school until this summer. Walcott said during the PEP meeting that the PCE readings were insignificant and likely caused by an open container that was later removed from the building.

But parents cited other concerns with the safety of their new site, which the city has leased from the Archdiocese of New York — namely that the building sports broken windows, leaky pipes, and fly infestations.

“There’s holes, there’s leaks in the pipes, in the lunch room and i’ve been told in the auditorium as well, where the students meet every day,” said Marisol Carrero, whose son is in third grade at P.S. 51.

Speaking to reporters after the meeting, Walcott said the DOE would fix any existing infrastructure problems at the school.

“if there are issues to be addressed like leaks and broken windows, we’ll take care of that,” he said.

He also said he would meet again with P.S. 51 parents, who charged during the meeting that he had not kept a promise to meet with them. Responding to comments at the PEP meeting, Walcott said he is “always” willing to meet with parents and would work to set a time for next week. He also said that he and other DOE officials met with P.S. 51 parents before the start of the school year. in August, Walcott apologized to an auditorium full of distressed families for the DOE’s slow response to the safety concern.

P.S. 51 isn’t the only school site that’s potentially dangerous, Jane Maisel, a former Bronx literacy coach, reminded the panel. She said the city is months behind on delivering a report about pollution at the Mott Haven Campus, which was recently built on the site of a former train yard that may have traces of coal tar.

“We don’t know if there’s pollution coming into the school, but we need to know it’s not,” she said.

The meeting, which was sparsely attended aside from P.S. 51 supporters, offered little suggestion of the controversial topics that typically crowd the panel’s agendas. While parents from P.S. 51 finished rallying outside, 15 young women from Start Strong Bronx, an organization that teaches students in eight middle schools about domestic violence, urged panel members to place a stronger focus on teen violence prevention in schools. The panel later unanimously approved regulations to address bullying and sexual harassment complaints in schools.

“i want to thank the community-based organization for testifying at this meeting and the last meeting,” Walcott told the Start Strong Bronx participants. “Your input has been invaluable in helping to shape the policy.”

after douglas

Betsy DeVos avoids questions on discrimination as school safety debates reach Congress

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos prepares to testify at a House Appropriations Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and Related Agencies Subcommittee hearing in Rayburn Building on the department's FY2019 budget on March 20, 2018. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos fielded some hostile questions on school safety and racial discrimination as she defended the Trump administration’s budget proposal in a House committee hearing on Tuesday.

The tone for the hearing was set early by ranking Democrat Rep. Rosa DeLauro, who called aspects DeVos’s prepared remarks “misleading and cynical” before the secretary had spoken. Even the Republican subcommittee chair, Rep. Tom Cole, expressed some skepticism, saying he was “concerned about the administration continuing to request cuts that Congress has rejected.”

During nearly two hours of questioning, DeVos stuck to familiar talking points and largely side-stepped the tougher queries from Democrats, even as many interrupted her.

For instance, when Rep. Barbara Lee, a Democrat from Texas, complained about proposed spending cuts and asked, “Isn’t it your job to ensure that schools aren’t executing harsher punishments for the same behavior because [students] are black or brown?” DeVos responded by saying that students of color would benefit from expanded school choice programs.

Lee responded: “You still haven’t talked about the issue in public schools as it relates to black and brown students and the high disparity rates as it relates to suspensions and expulsions. Is race a factor? Do you believe that or not?” (Recent research in Louisiana found that black students receive longer suspensions than white students involved in the same fights, though the difference was very small.)

Again, DeVos did not reply directly.

“There is no place for discrimination and there is no tolerance for discrimination, and we will continue to uphold that,” she said. “I’m very proud of the record of the Office of Civil Rights in continuing to address issues that arise to that level.”

Lee responded that the administration has proposed cuts to that office; DeVos said the reduction was modest — less than 1 percent — and that “they are able to do more with less.”

The specific policy decision that DeVos faces is the future of a directive issued in 2014 by the Obama administration designed to push school districts to reduce racial disparities in suspensions and expulsions. Conservatives and some teachers have pushed DeVos to rescind this guidance, while civil rights groups have said it is crucial for ensuring black and Hispanic students are not discriminated against.

That was a focus of another hearing in the House on Tuesday precipitated by the shooting last month at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, a Wisconsin Republican, falsely claimed in his opening statement that Broward County Public Schools rewrote its discipline policy based on the federal guidance — an idea that has percolated through conservative media for weeks and been promoted by other lawmakers, including Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Utah Sen. Mike Lee. In fact, the Broward County rules were put into place in 2013, before the Obama administration guidance was issued.

The Manhattan Institute’s Max Eden, a leading critic of Obama administration’s guidance, acknowledged in his own testimony that the Broward policy predated these rules. But he suggested that policies like Broward’s and the Obama administration’s guidance have made schools less safe.

“Faced with pressure to get the numbers down, the easiest path is to simply not address, or to not record, troubling, even violent, behavior,” he said.

Kristen Harper, a director with research group Child Trends and a former Obama administration official, disagreed. “To put it simply, neither the purpose nor the letter of the federal school discipline guidance restrict the authority of school personnel to remove a child who is threatening student safety,” she said.

There is little, if any, specific evidence linking Broward County’s policies to how Stoneman Douglas shooter Nicholas Cruz was dealt with. There’s also limited evidence about whether reducing suspensions makes schools less safe.

Eden pointed to a study in Philadelphia showing that the city’s ban on suspensions coincided with a drop in test scores and attendance in some schools. But those results are difficult to interpret because the prohibition was not fully implemented in many schools. He also cited surveys of teachers expressing concerns about safety in the classroom including in Oklahoma CityFresno, California; and Buffalo, New York.

On the other hand, a recent study found that after Chicago modestly reduced suspensions for the most severe behaviors, student test scores and attendance jumped without any decline in how safe students felt.

DeVos is now set to consider the repeal of those policies on the Trump administration’s school safety committee, which she will chair.

On Tuesday, DeVos said the committee’s first meeting would take place “within the next few weeks.” Its members will be four Cabinet secretaries: DeVos herself, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar, and Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen.

on the run

‘Sex and the City’ star and public schools advocate Cynthia Nixon launches bid for N.Y. governor

Cynthia Nixon on Monday announced her long-anticipated run for New York governor.

Actress and public schools advocate Cynthia Nixon announced Monday that she’s running for governor of New York, ending months of speculation and launching a campaign that will likely spotlight education.

Nixon, who starred as Miranda in the TV series “Sex and the City,” will face New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo in September’s Democratic primary.

Nixon has been active in New York education circles for more than a decade. She served as a  longtime spokeswoman for the Alliance for Quality Education, a union-backed advocacy organization. Though Nixon will step down from that role, according to a campaign spokeswoman, education promises to be a centerpiece of her campaign.

In a campaign kickoff video posted to Twitter, Nixon calls herself “a proud public school graduate, and a prouder public school parent.” Nixon has three children.

“I was given chances I just don’t see for most of New York’s kids today,” she says.

Nixon’s advocacy began when her oldest child started school, which was around the same time the recession wreaked havoc on education budgets. She has slammed Gov. Cuomo for his spending on education during his two terms in office, and she has campaigned for New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio.

In 2008, she stepped into an emotional fight on the Upper West Side over a plan to deal with overcrowding and segregation that would have impacted her daughter’s school. In a video of brief remarks during a public meeting where the plan was discussed, Nixon is shouted down as she claims the proposal would lead to a “de facto segregated” school building.

Nixon faces steep competition in her first run for office. She is up against an incumbent governor who has amassed a $30 million war chest, according to the New York Times. If elected, she would be the first woman and the first openly gay governor in the state.