School District Struggles Resemble the Troubles of ‘Environmental Racism’

Students and staff in the East Ramapo Central School District, some 30 miles north of New York City, cannot drink the tap water in any of the public school buildings, and the chronic state of deterioration has spurred calls for the school system to be taken over.

East Ramapo public schools serve almost 9,200 K-12 children, and all 13 school buildings received failing ratings in a building condition survey conducted by a New York-based design, engineering, and construction management firm. The district’s school administration building was likewise rated failing, and other facilities were rated unsatisfactory.

The firm, CSArch, calculated that all necessary repairs would cost more than $230 million.

When lead was discovered in the water in many schools in 2016, specific taps and water fountains were turned off. Tap water is now accessible for hand-washing and cleaning, but students and staff must drink bottled water or water from filling stations, according to a district official.

The situation is “reminiscent of the environmental racism seen in Flint, Michigan,” the New York Civil Liberties Union wrote in a letter to Gov. Kathy Hochul and other officials, urging that the state take over the school district.

School District Struggles Resemble the Troubles of 'Environmental Racism'

They noticed that the schools are primarily attended by Black and Latino children. “Like Flint, lead in the water at East Ramapo public schools was discovered seven years ago and has gone unaddressed,” the letter states.

The superintendent, Dr. Clarence G. Ellis, stated that the survey required “significant upgrades.”

“We are reviewing different financial options to make the necessary improvements quickly, especially ones that directly impact the health and safety of our students and staff,” he added in a written statement.

The issue in East Ramapo, Rockland County, comes when there is heightened awareness about lead in water. According to a recent assessment by the New York City Coalition to End Lead Poisoning, over 900,000 households in New York City may be receiving water from a lead service line.

Lead, a neurotoxin, can harm the brain and neurological system, particularly in newborns and small children. Lead exposure can result in behavioral issues, learning impairments, and decreased assessed intelligence.

Every school district in New York was obligated to conduct a building survey between 2020 and 2024 and every five years after that. The survey for East Ramapo was slated for 2022, the New York Times acquired a report of the firm’s June 20, 2023 poll. The Journal News was the first to report on the survey results.

“It is unthinkable for New York to tolerate such deplorable, dangerous conditions for the students in East Ramapo schools,” Johanna Miller, director of the New York Civil Liberties Union’s Education Policy Center, said in a statement.

In 2016, lead was discovered in at least nine of the district’s buildings, prompting officials to turn off a number of water supplies, including water fountains and faucets used for drinking and cooking. Purified water dispensers were installed, and students and employees were warned not to drink the water in English, Spanish, Creole, or Yiddish.

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In an email, J.P. O’Hare, a spokesman for the State Education Department, said the department was working with state-appointed monitors to “ensure progress continues and the educational rights of every East Ramapo student are met,” adding that the district has been subjected to “increased oversight and scrutiny” in recent years.

Mr. O’Hare stated that the school system is spending roughly $91 million of federal Covid-19 response money on building modifications, which is more than any other district in the state, and that “there is still much work to do.”

For years, the district’s public schools have been in disrepair. A state-appointed monitor stated in 2014 that the board, traditionally dominated by Orthodox Jews, has demonstrated a preference for private schools in the area, which Orthodox Jewish pupils primarily attend.

Aside from the contaminated water mentioned in the report, there were other issues: Five East Ramapo schools lacked inadequate kitchen ventilation hoods. There was evidence of vermin at four schools, and most schools had insufficient ventilation and HVAC control systems.

Spring Valley High School, one of the district’s schools, closed in 2021 after mold was discovered in classrooms and it looked that any cleanup would result in asbestos exposure. Parents and students have expressed issues about the quality of food prepared at schools, raising concerns about food that didn’t taste well and meals that made children ill.

According to a survey published in the American Journal of Public Health, there is a link between school building quality and student absenteeism in New York. The study examined data from upstate New York public schools serving kids from kindergarten to grade 12.

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