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Philly school knew about toxic lead in drinking water but kept parents in the dark

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It was a display of kindness that should have been heartwarming. Instead, Frederick Douglass Elementary School teacher Alison Marcus just felt queasy.

In 2016 — while headlines blared about the water crisis in Flint, Michigan — Marcus’ North Philadelphia charter school raised money to buy bottled water for residents of the distressed Midwestern city. But as she watched students at the charter, run by Mastery, toss change into a large plastic bucket, she felt a pang of guilt.

“I just remember thinking, ‘We should definitely be testing the water here,’” she said in an interview this month.

That’s because Marcus says she and other teachers feared the drinking water at the school wasn’t much better than Flint’s. That same year, for roughly a week, some hallway fountains and sinks spurted a brown liquid that looked more like apple cider than water, according to nine former and current staffers.

Administrators say they were unaware of the issues. However, Marcus says she and others complained about the brown water in 2016 to school leaders. No one ever formally notified parents.

In the coming years, there would be a stream of other warning signs that something was gravely wrong with the school’s water system: Water fountains and sinks failed lead tests in 2017; a staffer reported cloudy drinking water in 2019; and more lead tests a few months later showed off-the-charts levels of the neurotoxin at some fountains. But Mastery repeatedly failed to notify parents expressly and expediently about these results.

The most recent lead test came in April, after City Council legislation required schools to conduct independent water quality tests. While the School District of Philadelphia’s threshold for allowable lead levels in water is 10 parts per billion (ppb), lead inspectors found a water fountain on the second floor of Douglass that had lead concentrations at more than 1,700 ppb. Another fountain on the third floor hit 3,500 ppb, roughly 350 times higher than the district limit.

Mastery says it quickly shut off the water supply to the affected fountains and posted on its website a copy of the 218-page water quality report, from New Jersey-based Smithco Engineering, for all of its 18 schools in Philadelphia.

To understand the potential gravity of the situation, parents would need to find the link to the report amidst the school’s nutrition plan, its snow day policies and a dozen other public notices.

Mastery did not directly communicate information to parents about the failed lead tests until last week after inquiries from this joint Keystone Crossroads/Plan Philly investigation. The email lacked specifics about lead levels and came nearly eight months after water samples were first drawn.

“Wow. That’s totally not right,” said Michelle Brewton, parent to a Douglass fifth-grader, upon learning of the details from a reporter on Tuesday. “For there to be lead in the school where children go and drink water, and the parents are not notified…. I was not aware of this.”

Gale Glenn, a mother of three Douglass students, expressed anger that the school had not been more proactive in disclosing the water quality problems at the school.

“They have my email. They have my phone number. They call me for every little thing my children do,” she said. “You can’t call me about the important stuff?”

Alfonso and Gale Glenn were dismayed to learn that high lead levels were found in the drinking water at Frederick Douglass Mastery Charter School, where three of their children attend. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Mastery CEO Scott Gordon now says the school should have notified parents that their children may have been exposed to unusually high levels of lead contaminants.

“We should have sent a notice home at that time,” he said in a phone interview Wednesday. “In general, our policy should be if there’s something that a parent is concerned about, we should notify them. I’m not clear why that notification didn’t go out at that time.”

Mastery officials said this week that all drinking fountains at the school have been decommissioned. Students get filtered water from portable jugs.

Kevin Schnepel, a Ph.D. with Simon Fraser University who has studied the impact of lead on childhood development, said exposure is linked to learning delays, higher rates of ADHD and other behavioral problems. He said that the growing scientific consensus is that there are no safe levels of lead exposure, particularly for children under the age of six.

“There is a lot of important neurodevelopment happening up to the teenage years. It’s bad to be exposed at any age. But it’s particularly bad at a young age,” Schnepel said.

He said the failure to immediately notify parents about the possibility of prolonged exposure to high levels of lead was especially troubling because the damage to brain development could be exacerbated without blood testing or treatment.

“I don’t want to say that it’s criminal,” Schnepel said. “But it’s a travesty when you have information about individuals that are being put at risk in terms of their cognitive and behavioral development and they don’t know about it.”

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