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Detroit students stage count day walkout to protest school water contamination

Sarah Cwiek
Michigan Radio
A list of student demands taped to the door of Wednesday Freedom School.

A group of Detroit students walked out of class in protest on Wednesday, the same day the state uses student attendance numbers to decide how much per-pupil funding school districts receive.

The students say they did it to draw attention to water contamination in the Detroit Public Schools Community District. The district cut off drinking fountains and other drinking water sources before the school year started, after tests found high levels of lead and copper in some schools.

The students say they want a permanent solution, and more information about what caused the problems in the first place. They also want comprehensive lead testing and better special education services, among other demands.

Instead of attending classes as usual, the students gathered at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Detroit for a “Freedom School” focused on fostering student activism around water and educational equity issues.

ReJoyce Douglas, a senior at Detroit’s Western International High Schools, says the walkout was an “act of symbolism” to draw wider attention to the students’ demands, and highlight what she calls“confusion, anger, and misinformation” surrounding the issue.

Douglas worries about how long students have been drinking contaminated water, and the effects it may have had. And she says the district’s current temporary fix for the water problems, water coolers in schools, hasn’t been ideal for students.

“I should just be able to know where I can get clean, fresh water, and be able to have my water,” Douglas said. “I shouldn’t have to go oh, this one’s empty, let me go find another one. Let me go to the first floor. Let me go to the third floor. Let me go try to find some water.”

Cass Technical High School senior Maya Solomon wants more information about the ultimate source of the water contamination. So far that’s puzzled district leaders, who note that even newer schools like Cass Tech have are showing high levels of the toxic metals.

“It doesn’t really make sense to me, particularly, that it’s only [a problem in] Detroit public schools,” Solomon said. “I just want a clear and concise answer, and I want to know what steps are being taken to actually fix the problem.”

On the latter front, the DPSCD school board is set to vote next week on a plan that would replace current drinking water sources with standalone hydration stations. According to the district, those stations “cool water and remove copper, lead, and other contaminants from drinking water.”

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti initiated the water quality testing in all district schools starting last spring. Test results from 86 schools so far show that 57 of them had at least one drinking water source with elevated levels of lead or copper. The district is still awaiting results from 27 schools.

The Great Lakes Water Authority and Detroit Water Sewerage Department, Detroit’s wholesale and retail water utility providers, say their tests show the source water meets federal guidelines for lead and copper.

Sarah Cwiek joined Michigan Public in October 2009. As our Detroit reporter, she is helping us expand our coverage of the economy, politics, and culture in and around the city of Detroit.
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