Wednesday, April 23, 2003

23 schools in city being tested for lead


District says students will be moved if necessary

By Robert Anglen
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Twenty-three public schools in Cincinnati are being inspected this week for the same lead contamination that caused a West End elementary school to close and its programs moved into a vacant building.

The source of the contamination at Heberle Elementary School , which has left one child with elevated blood-lead levels, has been identified as flaked and chipped paint on wooden windows.

Cincinnati Public Schools officials say those same windows are in 23 of the district's 80 schools. The list of the 23 schools was not immediately available.

"What I believe will happen is that we will abate the (lead). We can't do that while the kids are in school. It will probably be when the kids are out of school over the summer," said district spokeswoman Janet Walsh. "Certainly, if a health hazard is identified and the students need to be moved, then we will do it."

Exposure to lead paint can cause headaches, behavior and learning problems, and in extreme cases, death in children. Adults are also at risk.

The federal government has banned lead-based paint because of its health dangers.

Walsh could not say why the buildings in the district had not been inspected.

She said she is aware of policies requiring the district to inspect for asbestos, but nothing similar for lead paint.

Cleaning up the problem at Heberle, including moving the students to a new school and offering free lead tests to all students and staff, will cost the district about $250,000.

The lead discovery comes just two weeks before residents will be asked to vote on a $480 million bond to help build 35 new schools and renovate 31 others over the next 10 years.

District officials say the two events are not connected, although some do point out that the potential problems with lead paint involve the district's oldest buildings.

"I don't believe in any way, shape or form that this is contrived," said Sue Taylor, head of the Cincinnati Federation of Teachers. "The district is not trying to politicize the health of our students."

Taylor said the buildings that will be tested are "of the same vintage" as Heberle, which was built in 1929 and held about 500 students and staff.

"The fact of the matter is that many children go from dilapidated homes in dilapidated neighborhoods to dilapidated schools," she said. "Neither I nor the district is surprised, but it is very unfortunate."

Started with one student

The Cincinnati Department of Health notified the school district on April 7 that during a routine exam, an Heberle student was found to have elevated levels of lead in the blood.

The health department conducted tests at the student's house and found no contaminants.

The child's parents were asked where else the child spent time during the day and were directed to the school.

Inspections turned up hazardous levels of lead in paint that had been turning to dust on the school's wood windows.

Initial plans were to decontaminate the school while the children were out during spring break last week.

But Walsh said it soon became clear the district could not get it done.

She said not enough certified abatement workers could be found to do the job.

"So the question then became, how do we move an entire school?"

Starting Thursday, the students, from kindergarten through eighth grade, will spend the rest of the year at the vacant Porter Elementary School.

Porter is at 1035 Mound St., still in the West End but more than a mile from Heberle, 2015 Freeman Ave.

Heberle Principal Derryl King said there had been no complaints from teachers or students about recurring sickness.

She said the health department has indicated that unhealthy lead levels are easy to spot in children under 6, but that it can be harder to identify in older children and adults.

"The health department will be doing free tests of all of our students and all of our staff," King said. "This was the first I heard about it. Nobody had complained to me."

But the situation has angered parents and teachers, who say the district did not get them the information about the school closure until last week.

At a two-hour meeting Monday, parents demanded answers and said the district could have worked faster.

Taylor said the situation has left many Heberle teachers upset. She said most teachers were unaware of the problem and didn't know that their classroom materials had been packed up while they were on spring break.

"The frustration level is very, very high," she said, adding that teachers must now sort through boxes to find equipment. "They need to get organized and set up for students to return to school Thursday."

E-mail ranglen@enquirer.com




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