The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

A poisoned school system

Oct 20, 2003

Teenagers at Washington D.C.'s Ballou Senior High School took mercury from an unlocked science lab in early October. This metal in liquid form is highly toxic. As the teenagers played with it, they spread it on themselves, their clothes, school hallways, the cafeteria and the gym. Some students either took the mercury itself home or had it on their clothes when they got home.

The 1200 students attending Ballou will spend a month at other area high schools while Ballou is decontaminated. At least five students tested with high enough levels of mercury to raise concern. Of 332 bags of clothing turned in for mercury testing, 24 showed traces of mercury.

Five city buses which pick up students from Ballou were pulled out of service and tested, with one needing cleaning from mercury contamination. More than 80 homes were tested for mercury, from which 69 people have been removed to hotels while their homes are cleaned of elevated levels of mercury.

What puts young people at far more risk than a stupid prank with mercury is the abysmal state of their schools. How were the kids able to pull this off? No one was monitoring the situation; the school staff was stretched too thin in every way.

Like most jurisdictions, the city of Washington claims it has to cut back on school funding. This past summer more than 400 positions were scheduled for cuts among janitors and clerical staff. High school teachers are expected to "educate" between 150 and 200 young people per day.

When there are fewer adults around, each one has more to do. How much can a janitor do without supplies, without enough people for cleaning and without building repairs? When the cafeteria contracts are cut back and fewer adults hired, how long are the lines? Which foods can be prepared? How secure are youngsters in schools where only one door is unlocked and a guard has to screen people for weapons? What if a fire broke out?

The science lab at Ballou High needed renovations. But there is no money for renovations. What kind of science teaching could the students have? In which round of budget cuts did they lose their art classes or their physical education? What happens in a classroom of 30 students with one teacher when more than half the students don't read at grade level? This is not education.

Without enough money, there is no possibility of a decent education. And these same problems exist in every big city in the country, especially in the poor neighborhoods where 75% or more of the students lack basic skills. Political leaders don't choose to provide the money needed really to educate youth.

More than mercury poisons the schools of our nation.