Schools working to shut off fountains

Health chief inspects sites for compliance on water

`Realized how ... serious we are'

But activist, parent to sue city, system for negligence

March 11, 2003|By Tanika White | Tanika White,SUN STAFF

Three days after he threatened to fine city schools, Baltimore Health Commissioner Peter L. Beilenson said yesterday that school officials are making a good faith effort to shut off water fountains and replace them with bottled-water coolers to avoid possible lead contamination.

But a city activist and a parent filed complaints against the school system, the Health Department, the State Department of Education and the city of Baltimore - saying those agencies failed to provide children a safe and lead-free environment since 1993.

Beilenson and other Health Department representatives visited 50 elementary schools yesterday, checking to see if they were in compliance with an order Feb. 26 to shut off fountains - a decade after the fountains were found to be dispensing lead-tainted water.

The schools were to have obeyed the order by Friday, but on that day Beilenson found only three of 24 schools in compliance. Beilenson threatened to fine schools $100 each per day if they were not in compliance by yesterday.

School system employees participated in the inspections and stayed behind to fix problems with fountains, coolers or signs labeling hand sinks "for handwashing only."

"Right now, we don't think there are any schools that we have visited that are still out of compliance," Beilenson said. "I think they have realized how very serious we are about this and are making every effort to improve."

Beilenson said some schools were given two extra days to completely comply. A few schools had covered fountains with plastic bags to deter children from drinking. "They've got to get them fully disconnected," Beilenson said.

Schools activist Tyrone Powers and Leslie Parker Blyther, a mother of two children in the school system, held a news conference in front of City Hall, announcing their intent to sue the schools, city and Health Department for negligence.

"All of them [agency officials] agree that it's a horrible problem," Powers said. "All of them agree that it should not have happened. But not one of them has made the push to correct it. There's not a sense of urgency."

Powers, a professor at Anne Arundel Community College who has recently been at the forefront of school-reform issues, said the fact that the school system has known since the early 1990s that students could be drinking lead-contaminated water makes the problem worse, considering the learning and behavioral problems that lead poisoning can cause.

"It counters everything the teachers are trying to do," Powers said. "When the children go to the water fountain, their ability to receive the information is being countered by the poison in the water they're drinking."

Powers' and Blyther's attorney, Jimmy A. Bell of Upper Marlboro, also filed complaints with the U.S. Department of Education and the Environmental Protection Agency yesterday, asking them to investigate their allegations of negligence and discrimination, because the majority of city school students are African-American.

"Would the State [Department of Education] have allowed this to happen in Dundalk?" Bell said. "I'm confident that if it happened at the schools where [state officials'] children attend, they would have shut the schools down the next day."

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