New Jersey’s Largest School District Turns Off Water To Avoid Poisoning Students

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Outdated pipes. Discolored water. Elevated levels of lead in water system. Two-year-old documents acknowledging the issues.

Sound familiar?

No, this isn’t Flint, Michigan — these recent findings come straight from New Jersey’s largest school district, Newark Public Schools, where half of the 60 schools have turned off their drinking water for fear of poisoning students. On Monday, the district reported the public schools’ water system contains unsafe concentrations of lead.

The rest of the city’s water supply has been deemed “perfectly safe” by the mayor’s office. But the presence of lead in schools’ drinking sources is particular cause for alarm: Studies have found that children in particular are more at risk for the consequences of lead poisoning. Exposure to high level of lead could easily lead to long-term physical and behavioral health issues.

Outdated, lead-rich water pipes aren’t the only thing Newark has in common with Flint, the city that knowingly distributed lead-polluted water to its residents for months.

Half of both cities’ populations are made up of black residents and at least 30 percent of their residents live at or below the poverty line. For children, the statistics are worse. According to 2015 studies, 70 percent of Newark’s children live in poverty, compared to about 62 percent of children in Flint.

And in Flint, there’s evidence that poverty is directly linked to the likeliness of a child having dangerous levels of lead in their blood. In Flint’s more affluent neighborhoods, where families can afford to buy bottled water or a filtration system, some children tested even saw a decrease in the already low levels of lead in their bloodstream.

In Newark’s case, some teachers anticipate a similar economic divide playing out between public and charter schools.

“This is the direct result of legislators being hell-bent on chartering the entire school district,” said John Abeigon, president of the Newark Teachers Union. “We’re a state-run school, yet [Gov.] Chris Christie directs all state funding to privately-run charter schools.”

Just last summer, Christie ruffled feathers by refusing to increase state education aid, and instead demanding public schools rustle up an additional $25 million in their already tight budgets to protect charter schools from the blow.

According to a 2014 memo, Newark public school district administrators added lead filters to all drinking fountains and faucets, and urged students and staff to run drinking water up to two minutes before using it. Abeigon said that the school should have installed new water coolers and pipes instead of relying on the “quick fix” filters. But added that state public schools’ tight finances are likely to blame.

“The educational apartheid that is going on in this city needs federal intervention,” said Abeigon, who, with other union members, has contacted state representatives to intervene. “This is racist thinking.”

The divide between state districts’ charter and public schools has quickly grown into a race issue. In 2014, the Hoboken school board president said Christie’s focus on charter schools was “fostering white flight,” along with bankrupting the public schools. In the Newark public school district, 55 percent of its 35,000 students are black, 43 are Hispanic — and a mere 8 percent are white.

However, recent studies have actually found a much higher percentage of black students attending Newark’s charter schools, and the U.S. Department of Education investigated claims of discrimination in the city’s public schools in 2014.

Newark’s mayor Ras Baraka urged residents not to worry about the lead levels in a Wednesday press release — and asked for volunteers to donate water to the 30 schools going without. In an email, a city representative said Baraka’s office is “rather stressed.” But they’re quick to link the district’s issue to growing number of similar cases of lead-rich water across the country.

“This problem exists throughout the country, not just in schools, but in older buildings that contain lead pipes,” Frank Baraff, city communications director, told the Huffington Post. “It’s a problem that is found in other schools in New Jersey, and it’s a problem that’s a nationwide problem in the older cities that still have a lot of lead pipes.”