Citizen Green: When political expediency trumps children

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Jordan Greenby Jordan Green

This is what journalism is for.

Sometimes daily newspapers, with readerships that, while in decline, are vastly larger than any other local print platforms, can misuse their megaphones, throwing institutions into disarray and unfairly damaging private lives by blowing problems out of proportion. And sometimes boutique outfits — alts, black weeklies and online news services — with much smaller audiences produce stellar investigative work that exposes grievous abuses, but the stories scarcely make an impact on the public discourse, almost like a stone chucked in the ocean.

But here’s an example of content and audience aligning perfectly in a daily newspaper story.

The story broken by the Winston-Salem Journal on Jan. 24 is such a classic example of watchdog investigative journalism that it’s hard to understand how the administrators and elected officials who lead Winston-Salem/Forsyth County School didn’t realize they’ve been slow-walking into the villain role over the past two decades. The headline said it all: “Schools sit on contaminated earth.”

To briefly recap the Journal’s findings, a toxic plume of cancer-causing chemicals stretches for a third of a mile, 30 to 90 feet below Hanes and Lowrance middle schools. The plume was caused by a chemical dump left by the former owner of a manufacturing facility across the street from the schools. Groundwater monitoring wells detected levels of tetrachloroethylene, or PCE, that are more than 3,500 times the state safety standard. The school board voted to spend $15.4 million to rebuild the aging Lowrance Middle School, which serves students with physical and developmental disabilities, on the same site. The district initially rejected alternative sites as unviable because of federal guidelines that require special-needs students to have an opportunity to interact with their mainstream peers.

The schools are hooked up to the city water supply, so the real concern is the toxic chemicals seeping into the air at the schools, but air-quality tests have only been conducted six times since Lowrance was built in 1952.

School officials have insisted that Lowrance and Hanes are safe. But they seem to have made that determination based on the absence of glaring evidence to the contrary rather than a comprehensive analysis based on adequate testing and a threshold of minimal risk. The onus should not be placed on parents and other concerned observers to prove that the site is unsafe; it might take decades and multiple diagnoses of cancer to prove it, and by then it will be too late. Rather, it’s the school district’s responsibility to prove that the schools are safe.

It would be immoral to expose al-Qaida operatives held as enemy combatants to the risk of environmental contamination at Guantánamo Bay. That the most medically vulnerable middle-school students in the system — the very people the school district is responsible for protecting — would be put at risk is beyond comprehension.

The other problem with the district’s handling of the contamination is that they somehow didn’t see fit to tell parents about the risks. None of the parents contacted by the Journal were aware of the contamination. WFDD News Director Emily McCord disclosed in a follow-up report that some of her reporters send their children to school there, and they had no idea. Previously, one of the few public mentions of the contamination, the Journal reported, was a brief presentation at a building and grounds committee in June 2014.

In other words, you could be an education reporter assigned to sit through hours of committee and full board meetings crammed with mind-numbing bureaucratic process and superficial ceremony, and still be unlikely to learn that middle-school students were being exposed to toxic chemicals.

“It’s something that we’ve talked about at board meetings and board committee meetings,” district Chief of Staff Theo Helm told McCord. “We’ve never tried to hide it.”

That is grossly inadequate. The district had an obligation to take proactive steps to inform parents — beyond sending out an email the night before the Journal story was scheduled for publication.

Far from being reassured when school officials appeared at a public meeting to answer questions last week, several parents pulled their children out of Lowrance and Hanes. By Sunday, the Journal was reporting that Superintendent Beverly Emory had changed her mind about building a new school on the contaminated site — not because she believed it was unsafe, but because of “perception” and the cost of ongoing monitoring.

Looking at all the reporting over the past 10 days, it’s hard to come to any other conclusion than district administrators, school-board members and state employees at the Department of Environment and Natural Resources knew about the risk to the children, but chose not to tell parents simply because it was more politically expedient to build a new school on a contaminated site without raising a fuss.

It seems to have not occurred to them that protecting the children should be their top priority.