The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In Detroit, one school leader’s reaction to lead in the water: Shut off the taps

A bottled drinking-water dispenser sits in the hallway at Gardner Elementary School in Detroit. (Paul Sancya/AP)

DETROIT — The results landed on Nikolai Vitti’s desk on a late summer afternoon, days before Detroit’s nearly 50,000 public school students would return to class. The findings were definitive and disturbing: In initial tests, two-thirds of schools showed alarming levels of lead in the water.

It was the latest in a growing list of crises for Detroit’s new schools superintendent, barely a year into his job. The city’s 106 schools needed $530 million in capital improvements, with no real way to fund them. Vitti had been chipping away at a daunting teacher shortage, overhauling outdated curriculums and trying to place an art teacher on every campus.

Earlier in the year, he ordered universal water testing for Detroit’s schools — testing that is not required by local, state or federal governments — and the answers he got that August afternoon were confounding. Old schools, newer schools, high schools, elementary schools — all proved susceptible to lead contamination.

Vitti talked over the problem with his wife. He thought about his own four school-age children. He conferred with the school board president. Then he issued a directive: Shut off drinking water in every school before students return. Truck in bottled water.

At home that weekend, he typed a letter to Detroit’s parents. He noted that the district had done what most others across the country do not — test its water despite the lack of any requirement to do so. “We did this because it was the right thing to do for our students and staff,” he wrote. Vitti added he would begin searching for a remedy, but wrote, “There are no quick solutions to our challenge.”

His decision cost the cash-strapped district hundreds of thousands of dollars a month for bottled water and alarmed some parents. But it has been widely praised as the right move in the face of a fraught problem, one school leaders across the country still face, with no simple answers.

There is no federal requirement for schools to periodically test their water — and none in sight — and the few states that mandate it have taken different approaches.

On Wednesday, the Trump administration released a long-awaited “federal lead action plan” to “help federal agencies work strategically and collaboratively to reduce exposure to lead with the aim of ultimately improving children’s health.”

But when it comes to schools, the proposal includes few new initiatives, and no mandatory requirements. The Environmental Defense Fund, an advocacy group, called the proposals “deeply disappointing” and said it was comprised of a “repackaged bundle of activities” that already exists.

The lack of any nationwide standards has resulted in a patchwork system in which local officials, with stretched budgets and a long list of other priorities, are left largely on their own to contend with whether to test, how to do it and what action to take when they almost inevitably find lead.

School systems throughout the nation have long wrestled with lead in water, in part because of the intractable problem of lead-bearing fixtures and pipes in aging buildings. Unlike in homes or other structures, water in schools tends to stagnate over summers and long holiday breaks, increasing the chance of lead leaching into pipes. Add that to understaffing, crimped budgets and a lack of regulation, and water testing seldom rises to a top priority.

Pressure to test

In the wake of the water crisis in Flint, Mich., which started in 2014 and left thousands of young children exposed to lead, school systems from coast to coast encountered renewed pressure to test for lead, an issue many have wrestled with — or in some cases largely ignored — for decades.

Some school districts have embraced voluntary testing. A growing number of states, namely New York, California and Maryland, have passed laws requiring it. But four years after Flint, even as exasperated parents have pushed schools to test and some lawmakers have weighed whether to make it mandatory everywhere, many of the nation’s schools are not looking for lead in their water.

A Government Accountability Office survey in the summer found that only 43 percent of school districts tested their water in either 2016 or 2017. Of those that did, an estimated 37 percent found lead levels above the Environmental Protection Agency’s “action level” of 15 parts per billion.

“It’s an important battleground, a real battleground,” said Virginia Tech professor Marc Edwards, who helped expose the Flint water crisis. “There’s no national standard, and so it’s total chaos.”

The decision to test struck Vitti as a moral obligation. How could you ensure the safety of students, he said, without knowing whether they were being exposed to lead in the water at their schools? Likewise, the decision to turn off the taps seemed like an obvious choice.

“I consulted my conscience,” Vitti recalled in an interview, adding that he saw less-expensive half-measures as not defensible. “I don’t think I could have looked in a child’s face, or a parent’s face to say, ‘I can assure you that your children will be safe in our school system.’ ”

Afterward, Vitti gathered principals together to explain his reasoning. He stood onstage at community meetings to answer questions from parents and other residents. He also encountered a range of sentiments from colleagues across the United States.

“I’ve heard, ‘I can’t believe we don’t test water.’ I’ve heard, ‘We need to test the water.’ I’ve heard, ‘If we have to test the water, we’re going to be in the exact same position that you’re in.’ I’ve heard, ‘We better not test the water because we’ll have a problem that we don’t want to deal with,’ ” Vitti said. “I’ve heard, ‘I don’t need to test the water because it’s not required.’ I’ve heard, ‘We tested one water source and declared our water safe.’

“I’ve heard all that,” he went on. “And I say, ignorance should no longer be bliss because we’re talking about the safety and well being of children.”

Edwards said he views the situation in Detroit as a success story, for a simple reason. “The real problem is the schools that never test,” he said. “The worst problems are the ones we don’t hear about.”

Water testing hurdles

Doctors and other health officials have made clear that there is no safe amount of lead exposure. Exposure to even small amounts “can cause irreversible cognitive and behavioral problems,” especially in young children, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.

But even in school districts with good intentions, strained budgets, understaffing and a lack of expertise can leave testing water and worrying about aging pipes and fixtures far from the top of the priority list.

“Money is going to be the first thing that holds them back” from testing and remediation, said Claire Barnett, executive director of Healthy Schools Network, a nonprofit organization that advocates for environmental health in schools.

She said another hindrance is that officials running schools often aren’t focused on the buildings themselves. “They come in to reform education, not fix the buildings and the grounds,” Barnett said. “The conditions of buildings have never been a priority in the K-to-12 world.”

In 2016, New York became the first state to require school districts to test drinking water for lead. State lawmakers from California to Colorado, from Maryland to Minnesota, have followed suit. But even so, testing timelines, protocols and funding differ.

The reality on the ground remains fraught. Even when school districts take the initiative to test, some face criticism from parents who say they weren’t notified soon enough of elevated lead levels. The remedies, and how to pay for them, also vary.

“It cries out for national standards,” Edwards said. “What you have is a knockdown, drag-out fight at every school system. . . . Everyone ends up being mad, and you’ve got unequal protection around the country.”

The EPA has published guidance on how school systems can test for lead. In the fall, the agency announced $20 million in grants to help localities pay for testing at schools and child-care centers. But until a national standard emerges, local districts will be left to find their own way.

For the moment, the hallways of many Detroit schools remain dotted with five-gallon water coolers — about one for every 100 students — while water fountains are hung with signs that say: “Do not drink.”

In Martin Luther King Jr. Senior High School, one cooler stood down a hallway labeled Birmingham Boulevard. Another waited for students heading to class down Achievement Avenue.

Down the road at Chrysler Elementary School, a water cooler stood near the front entrance, not far from where the chess club gathered on a recent afternoon. Nearby, a kindergarten P.E. class drank water from white paper cups. “They think it’s cool,” their teacher said.

Roshanda Smith, who had warned her fifth-grade daughter before about drinking from school fountains, sighed at the mention of the lead problem. “It’s frustrating as a parent,” she said. The school system handled the issue quickly and transparently, she added, but “I just think it’s sad that our students have to go through this.”

Vitti understands.

“I’ve heard anger, frustration. Outrage over the fact that we’re even having this conversation in Detroit. It just feels like one more thing that the city and specifically its children have to deal with,” he said.

“I share that level of frustration and anger and overall disappointment,” he added, “but I can’t stay in that space. As a leader, you have to move toward a solution.”

The solution Vitti eventually proposed was not cheap: approximately $3 million to purchase and install highly filtered water-hydration stations for every Detroit school. It would be exponentially cheaper and more practical than ripping out thousands of aging pipes and fixtures, but expensive nonetheless.

So in the fall, Vitti and his staff members began working the phones. They called United Way for Southeastern Michigan. They reached Ford, General Motors and other major companies. In the end, they secured $2.4 million in philanthropic commitments for the undertaking.

On Oct. 9, the school board approved Vitti’s plan. Later that day, he stood before a small crowd in an elementary school library to announce hydration stations would soon start showing up in Detroit schools.

“This is not something we should be having a conversation about. We should expect water to be clean enough to drink,” he said. “This is a national issue, and it should have a national solution.”

But in the meantime, the local solution would have to do.

“We’re not waiting,” he said. “Our children can’t wait for safe water.”