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At an April D.C. Council hearing, parents of children at J.O. Wilson Elementary learned for the first time about lead in a drinking water source at the Near Northeast school.
A sample from a water fountain outside a preschool classroom tested positive for an elevated level of lead in August 2015, and parents say no one was notified. After the hearing, Iris Bond Gill, a member of the PTA and the Local School Advisory Team at J. O. Wilson, and Evan Yeats, chair of J.O. Wilson’s PTA ad-hoc Committee on Facilities, reached out to other parents about the issue. Gill says she received an email from a school employee on behalf of the principal telling her that the Department of General Services had conducted testing again in January and that “all was found to be well.”
According to Yeats, the parent community was shocked. “It’s been a continual process of trying to figure out what’s really going on,” he says.
The Council will hold a hearing today on the District’s protocol for testing water sources in public buildings like schools, libraries, and recreation centers for lead. Ahead of the hearing, Deputy City Administrator Kevin Donahue announced that DGS would change the action level for lead from 15 parts per billion (the EPA standard) to 1 ppb.
Since testing began again at J.O. Wilson, Gill says that DGS has done a good job of putting tags on problematic water sources once they have been found to contain lead. However, communication has been poor, and there seems to be no trust between parents and DGS on the issue. The only formal communication, according to Gill, was letters between DCPS and the principal. The parents were not directly notified. (In a May email forwarded to parents by the school’s principal, DCPS’ Nathaniel Beers apologized for not “alerting the J.O. Wilson Elementary School community” about the August test result: “We regret that this omission has resulted in angst over student health and an eroding of trust in DC Public Schools and the District government.”)
Joe Weedon, Ward 6 representative on the State Board of Education, has children enrolled at Maury Elementary. Four years ago, a water fountain outside his son’s preschool classroom tested positive for a high level of lead, and he says he was never told. “Hopefully, action was taken immediately and the exposure was limited,” he says.
Weedon says there are still communication issues regarding the lead tests—”there is not a lot of trust that the promises will be kept”—but he thinks the situation is improving. “I don’t think you’ll see students regularly drinking from lead-tainted water,” he said. “I believe DCPS are doing a much better job about making sure the reports are being posted publicly.”
DGS Director Christopher Weaver says the agency posts the results of the tests on its website, “but we don’t do it until DCPS has had the chance to notify and report them to schools, families, principals, the community.”
“We now have a protocol,” says Weaver. “We’ve always been testing and testing well. What we were not doing as well is recording and reporting as we should. But now we have a replicable [model] of testing, how to promulgate [results] in ways that we have not before.”
He adds, “We continue to have very, very low incidents of what are called actionable levels of lead. And where we do find actionable levels, we take instant, immediate action.” These actions include adding filters to water sources.
In a statement published June 2, DCPS said “more than 90 percent of DCPS school buildings” had been tested for lead in 2016: “After more than 3,700 tests, DGS identified 17 water sources at 12 schools with lead levels above the EPA standard. For each of these samples, DGS took action and re-tested the water. Each of those 12 schools received an individual letter explaining the details of their test results.”
Mary Lord, an at-large member of the State Board of Education, says the District today is responding better to high lead results than when her son attended DCPS schools (he’s about to graduate from the University of Vermont). “Back then, D.C. Public Schools laudably undertook a system-wide check for lead in the water. But when high levels of lead were detected, there was no plan for quickly bringing the water fountains back online,” Lord says.
Lord says she is concerned “about the school communities without robust PTAs or parents who have the time and education to dive into the technical details of water-quality reports, call DGA authorities, and testify before the city council.”
“DCPS should apply policies and protocols equitably across schools,” Gill plans to tell the Council today, according to testimony she provided to City Paper. “The District should have a clear outline of services available to schools facing lead remediation issues— those services should be the same regardless of the school’s poverty level, students it serves, zip code, or any other measure.”
Andrew Giambrone contributed reporting to this article.