“Shut the school down and move my child.” Those are the words of Valarie Gibbs, one of dozens of parents worried that a Texas public school is making their children sick.
I agree with her. The students and staff of Nichols Junior High in Arlington, most of them black and Hispanic, should be immediately removed from their school building. Something there seems to be sickening them, according to a recent lawsuit, which alleges that they were “exposed to dangerous mold and/or unknown toxic substances.” Since this current school year began, 522 medical complaints have been filed by employees and students’ parents. And these aren’t just kids playing pranks or faking sickness like Ferris Bueller.
Numerous teachers and administrators, including a former principal, nearly passed out or lost consciousness, according to the lawsuit and interviews with parents. Some were put on IVs and oxygen. At least a dozen staff members have reported symptoms. Several staff members have resigned or been reassigned — and some allegedly told parents that they refuse to ever step foot in the building again. They believe it’s that toxic.
Since September, students and staff members have complained of dizziness, muscle spasms and weakness, leg cramps, nausea, vomiting, headaches that last for hours or even days, strange tingling feelings, and exhaustion, according to the lawsuit. Among the hundreds of complaints filed this school year, many report that symptoms nearly disappear on the weekends and improve significantly when they leave the school grounds at the end of the day. In the midst of it all, the Arlington Independent School District (AISD) removed the principal and multiple teachers from the school with little explanation.
“We’re losing teachers, the principal. Students are falling ill as well. It’s a lot to deal with,” Delilah Perreira, PTA president for Nichols Junior High School, said in a February interview with NBC station KXAS-TV.
The lawsuit seeks to have the school closed and students and staff relocated until the cause for the illnesses is “correctly identified and fully remedied.”
The district — which filed a motion last week seeking to dismiss the case — released a statement saying it has conducted “extensive testing” at the school and has been transparent about the results, publishing them online.
“The Board and district are confident in the results of both the internal and external testing and analysis … done thus far that indicate nothing in the building would cause a health risk and will continue to work with industry experts to correct any potential issues in the building,” Arlington Independent School District said in its statement. “The district continues to monitor the campus closely and will address concerns promptly and comprehensively and share information with staff and parents as it is received in order to continue to ensure the safety and health of our staff and students.”
In a Feb. 2 letter, the district acknowledged a foul odor at the school — known as “dirty sock syndrome” — and wrote that while the situation is “unpleasant and may lead to a general feeling of discomfort,” it was “not reported to be a health risk.” AISD also said that attendance patterns at Nichols this year appear normal.
Dr. Alisa Rich, a widely respected toxicologist and environmental scientist, was contracted by attorneys representing families and staff members of the school to evaluate this crisis. Her determination, published March 21 after she reviewed multiple reports from the school district and conducted her own analysis, is that students and staff are being exposed to an airborne Volatile Organic Compound (VOC) and that the school system, out of an abundance of caution, should order the “immediate removal and relocation of personnel and students from the facility to avoid prolonged exposure and possible irreversible harm.”
Dr. Rich continued, “It is strongly encouraged that personnel and scholars are not allowed to return to the Nichols facility until appropriate tests are conducted to rule out exposure to VOCs and/or natural gas.” Rich is deeply worried about the potential for brain damage or long-term nervous system damage.
Parents carry similar concerns.
“For the kids’ sake, close the school so that it doesn’t prolong whatever’s going on with these kids,” said Joshua Harris, a father of a 7th grader at Nichols Junior High.
When asked whether the inconvenience of moving all of the students out of the school would be worth it, Joshua, standing alongside his wife, Kaneia, without hesitation, declared, “I’d rather my son live a long, healthy life than be sick going to school here every day.”
For its part, the school district has conducted numerous environmental tests, but none seem to adequately explain the severity of symptoms reported by students and staff. The district says it continues to work with county public health officials and sent six letters to parents about indoor air quality concerns at the school.
One local community organizer compared the situation at Nichols Junior High to Dallas public housing built in the 1950s that contained high levels of lead.
“In 1972, the city of Dallas acknowledged the problem, however, it took them ANOTHER 21 years to rectify it… and that was only after the West Dallas Boys and Girls closed their doors when they discovered lead levels in their soil to be 36 times the level considered dangerous for children,” Michelle Williams, President of the local chapter of the Urban League, said.
This is the definition of environmental racism. Marginalized people are exposed to dangerous toxins and when it’s abundantly clear that something terrible is happening, solutions are slower than they ever would be in predominantly white communities of privilege.
“I knew they were testing the air,” said parent Natasha Jackson. “They said ‘oh, everything’s fine.’ Well if they’re still getting sick, everything’s not fine.”
And that’s the point. In spite of test after test, students and staff members are still getting sick and it appears that the school system, according to the lawsuit, has overlooked the well-being of those who deserve to be protected.
This is why we say “Black Lives Matter.” It appears that this Title 1 school, which primarily serves students and families of color, is not being properly protected.
Civil rights attorneys Jasmine Crockett and Lee Merritt have been brought on to represent at least 15 plaintiffs in the suit against the school district. “New families and staff members are joining are suit every day. Educators and parents have come together to file a lawsuit against the district to get the building evacuated until the hazard is identified and resolved. Much like the contaminated water in Michigan or the habitual practice of placing landfills next to black communities, this would not be happening if these students were not minorities,” Merritt said.
Sadly, I agree with him. Like the moment where Erin Brockovich dared opposing attorneys to drink the contaminated water that was making people sick, I seriously doubt that the school officials accused of being slow to stand up for the people of Nichols Junior High would let their loved ones attend or work there.
These kids and their families are stuck. Many families who live in that school district really don’t have any other options but to continue sending their kids to a school they believe is making them sick. No person should ever be forced to make such a choice, but these are the painful decisions too many communities of color face all over this nation. What do you do when you own a home in a city that can’t guarantee your drinking water is clean or that your children aren’t being sickened by something in the ground or in the air?