Newark students want answers about lead in schools' water

By Barry Carter | The Star-Ledger
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on March 22, 2016

Marc Manasse, left, is a junior at Weequahic High School in Newark. He’s talking with Brad Haggerty, deputy assistant superintendent of Newark public schools, who was explaining to him what the district was doing about high levels of lead that were found at Weequahic High School. Students at the school staged a silent protest because they are upset and nervous about the lead in the water.

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Students at Weequahic High School in Newark weren't interested in convocation, a daily assembly that sets the educational tone for the day.

Instead, 200 of them were staging a silent protest on the gymnasium bleachers last Friday to get the attention of school district officials and building administrators.

They are upset and nervous about elevated levels of lead found in their school water – levels high enough to make the district shut down drinking fountains. The same thoughts likely resonate with students at 29 other Newark public schools, where the district also has shut off the fountains after reporting elevated levels of lead.

"The students don't have a voice in the building,'' said Marc Manasse, a 17-year-old junior.

The frustration, he said, follows a student protest last year on issues such as a lack of books, supplies and quality teachers. Now, they're dealing with lead in the water.

What a way to kick off  spring break. They'll spend this week on edge, then return next Monday to an unknown situation.

Vice Principal Kelly Williams told the students she understood their concerns, that she is a Newark resident, too.

She explained that she needed them to be in class, that PARCC assessment testing is around the corner and that they were missing valuable instruction.

The students reluctantly left after an hour, but a smaller group of 20 met that same day in the cafeteria with Brad Haggerty, a deputy assistant superintendent, who explained to them what was going on.

"We want students to feel informed,'' he said.

Haggerty told them that 10 locations at Weequahic were tested and high levels of lead were found in two places in the nurse's office. He said more testing would be conducted this week at their building and the district was opening five schools where students can be tested.

News of the lead problem surfaced March 9, when the school district and the state Department of Environmental Protection reported higher-than-normal levels of lead from annual testing.

City and school officials realize parents and students are concerned, but they also want them to know that the amount of lead detected in Newark public schools is not comparable to the dangerous level found in Flint, Michigan.

The students, however, are still uneasy and want an expert to talk about lead beyond the informational handouts given to them by administrators. They also want to know when the water will be turned on.

Memo to the district: The stored boxed water at the schools doesn't taste good. And that's not just from Weequahic students. Unfavorable reviews come from students at other schools. They said the bottled water being delivered has helped.

After the Weequahic students left the cafeteria, Marc Manasse, the unofficial student leader, stayed behind and talked further with Haggerty.

"He sounded concerned to work with us as a student body," Marc said. "I'm going to see what he does.''

And while you do that, Marc, here's a suggestion: Talk to Vivian Peralta and Kiara Rozier. They're outspoken 16-year-old students at Barringer Academy of the Art and Humanities. High levels of lead were also found at their school, but they raise other issues that bother them – similar those at your school.

There are not enough textbooks. They don't want to just be taught how to take a test. It would be nice to have a librarian.

When the lead problem dropped on them, Kiara and Vivian were just as frustrated as you, Marc.

After school, you can find them at the Youth Media Symposium, a program of the Abbott Leadership Institute, a Newark organization at Rutgers University-Newark.

It teaches parents and students to advocate for their education. Needless to say, that's what Vivian and Kiara were doing last week when they signed up to speak at the school advisory board meeting.

"We need to have our voices heard,'' Kiara said. "The (students) don't know how much they could change if they would just speak up.'' 

KryJuan Roberson, an eighth-grader at Thirteenth Avenue School, wasn't at the meeting but he's just as vocal as his YMS buddies.

On the same day that school officials told his classmates about  lead in their drinking water, KryJuan posted a short video on social media that expressed his concern.

"If we don't say (anything), they'll just ignore us,'' he said.

Vivian said the ordeal is nerve wracking, knowing that she has to come back to school next week with no resolution to the problem.

"I'm scared to drink that water because, over a period of time, it will affect you,'' said Vivian, an 800-meter track team member who is worried because she consumed the water often during practice. "This is bad.''

The shock surrounding the lead in Newark schools is going to linger a while for Yolanda Johnson, who is founder of a parent organization.

Johnson, who has two children in affected schools, said parents and students are struggling to get a basic education that has now become more difficult with this health threat.

 "I'm sick and tired,'' she said. "It's like one thing after another.''

 It's definitely not a relaxing spring break.

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