Originally published in the Autumn 2018 edition of the Virginia Defender, issue 58, printed November 8. Reproduced here for accessibility and archival purposes. To find other stories in the Autumn 2018 issue or to download the full PDF, see this post (pending). For the full web catalog, see our Full Issues page.

By Queen Zakia Shabazz

In June 2017 the Virginia General Assembly enacted Senate Bill 1359 requiring school divisions to conduct lead testing of potable water to ensure that schools have a safe, clean water supply for consumption by students and staff. 

This legislation also requires local school boards to give priority to testing in schools that were built, in whole or in part, before 1986. This testing requirement is effective July 1, 2017, and local school boards must develop a schedule for water testing and a plan for remediation as needed. 

(See the full text of the bill at the Virginia Department of Education here.) 

After the bill was passed, United Parents Against Lead sought and received permission from then-Acting Superintendent of Richmond Public Schools Thomas Kranz to test four Richmond elementary schools with UPAL funds awarded by the Falls of the James Group/Sierra Club. 

Using the standards of the American Academy of Pediatrics, two of the schools, Ginter Park and George Mason, tested high for lead content in water. 

I was a first-grade teacher at George Mason at the time and witnessed the alarming rate at which very young children are expelled, suspended, punished and retained. Lead poisoning is rarely attributed to being the cause for some of the behavioral issues or developmental delays the children exhibit. 

When it was revealed that the schools had elevated levels of lead in their water, RPS went into immediate denial and sought to smear me until ultimately the termination of my employment from service became, to them, more important and urgent than the protection of our children. 

Ironically bottled water is still being delivered to George Mason, even though RPS says that the lead levels in the water are “acceptable” by EPA’s standards. 

Recently UPAL made inquiries of several Virginia school districts. Of those contacted, none have a visible water testing schedule or plan for remediation posted. 

RPS has test results hidden on its website under the following tabs: Departments, Facility Services and Water Testing. School districts are supposed to make the information easily accessible to the public. 

If the water testing is mandatory, then why are so few school districts complying? Who is protecting the children, the poisoned children whose bodies and voices are laden with lead? 

Lead poisoning affects children’s learning, IQ and cognitive abilities. The building of prisons is determined by the reading levels of third-grade students. If reading scores are down, there is a presumed need for more prisons because the third graders will not be able to catch up, excel or perhaps even graduate high school. 

Void of a high school diploma, many take the route towards a modern form of enslavement, the prison industrial complex. Thus the term “School-to-prison pipeline.” 

The school-to-prison pipeline is a troubling national trend where children, especially Black male children, are funneled out of public schools and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems. According to Rise for Youth, Virginia spends one third of the Department of Juvenile Justice annual operating budget on youth incarceration. 

Recent research suggests that childhood lead poisoning may be correlated with 88 percent of the variation in violent crime rates in the U.S. over several decades. This research points to lead poisoning as contributing to disciplinary problems in school, delinquency, and adult criminality. 

For the most part, the vast research on lead and the link to criminal delinquency is ignored and children continue to be medicated and incarcerated. Private jailers make big profits off incarcerated youth and it is in their interest to make sure that the poisoning continues. 

Queen Zakia Shabazz is the mother of a lead poisoned son and has been an advocate for children for more than 20 years. She currently serves as the Coordinator for the Virginia Environmental Justice Collaborative and can be reached at qshabazz@vaejc.org.

Categories: Editorials

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