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Parents: New safety issues at school moved from toxic campus

Renewing criticism of how the Department of Education handled safety concerns at their former building, parents from P.S. 51 in the Bronx say their new site isn’t up to par, either.

That was the message that parents and community activists brought to Wednesday night’s Panel for Educational Policy meeting at the Bronx High School for Business. At a press conference outside the meeting and during the shorter-than-usual meeting itself, they charged that the city still has not done enough to ensure safety for P.S. 51’s students and teachers.

The city relocated P.S. 51 in August after detecting dangerous levels of a cancer-causing chemical at the original school building. The city detected the toxic chemical in February but did not disclose the discovery to families until this summer.

“We demand that protocol be put in place to remove students from toxic sites immediately, not five or six months after a problem is discovered,” said Alan Gary, whose son, Nathanial, is a former P.S. 51 student. “We believe it’s the parents’ decision to decide whether or not to send their kids to a school. Dennis Walcott, how dare you? You took away the rights of parents to protect their children by not informing us.”

Parents at the press conference called on the DOE to register each student who was exposed to the chemical, called trichloroethylene or TCE, and monitor their medical conditions over time — something the teachers union has said it will do for teachers who worked in the building.

Kelly King-Lewis pulled her daughter, Saqirah, out of school at P.S. 51 in 2009 after the eight-year-old, who was six at the time, complained of headaches, a symptom of TCE exposure, “constantly,” and said she was organizing parents around their concerns because her eldest daughter spent six years at P.S. 51 before graduating in 2010. Now she is worried her daughters may suffer long-term health effects.

“We should have medical monitoring to or children because we don’t know if there is going to be a physical effect later on down the line,” she said.

She said she is concerned that a routine test found traces of another chemical, called perchloroethene, or PCE, in the new school building, which housed a Catholic school until this summer. Walcott said during the PEP meeting that the PCE readings were insignificant and likely caused by an open container that was later removed from the building.

But parents cited other concerns with the safety of their new site, which the city has leased from the Archdiocese of New York — namely that the building sports broken windows, leaky pipes, and fly infestations.

“There’s holes, there’s leaks in the pipes, in the lunch room and i’ve been told in the auditorium as well, where the students meet every day,” said Marisol Carrero, whose son is in third grade at P.S. 51.

Speaking to reporters after the meeting, Walcott said the DOE would fix any existing infrastructure problems at the school.

“if there are issues to be addressed like leaks and broken windows, we’ll take care of that,” he said.

He also said he would meet again with P.S. 51 parents, who charged during the meeting that he had not kept a promise to meet with them. Responding to comments at the PEP meeting, Walcott said he is “always” willing to meet with parents and would work to set a time for next week. He also said that he and other DOE officials met with P.S. 51 parents before the start of the school year. in August, Walcott apologized to an auditorium full of distressed families for the DOE’s slow response to the safety concern.

P.S. 51 isn’t the only school site that’s potentially dangerous, Jane Maisel, a former Bronx literacy coach, reminded the panel. She said the city is months behind on delivering a report about pollution at the Mott Haven Campus, which was recently built on the site of a former train yard that may have traces of coal tar.

“We don’t know if there’s pollution coming into the school, but we need to know it’s not,” she said.

The meeting, which was sparsely attended aside from P.S. 51 supporters, offered little suggestion of the controversial topics that typically crowd the panel’s agendas. While parents from P.S. 51 finished rallying outside, 15 young women from Start Strong Bronx, an organization that teaches students in eight middle schools about domestic violence, urged panel members to place a stronger focus on teen violence prevention in schools. The panel later unanimously approved regulations to address bullying and sexual harassment complaints in schools.

“i want to thank the community-based organization for testifying at this meeting and the last meeting,” Walcott told the Start Strong Bronx participants. “Your input has been invaluable in helping to shape the policy.”