A Final Thought
Testing in Schools
- By Paul Abramson
- June 1st, 2016
Has your school district checked its water fountains and
sinks recently to ensure that the
drinking water is safe from lead? I hope the
answer is “yes.”
The issue of lead in drinking water came to
the fore a few months ago when it was learned
that drinking water in Flint, Mich., contained
lead. The Flint lead problem made national news, informed the
public about the dangers of lead in drinking water (especially how
it affects young brains) and caused school districts all over the
nation to wonder whether lead might be in their
In suburban New York, Connecticut and New
Jersey, several cautious school districts proactively
tested the water in their drinking fountains
just so that they could reassure parents that the
water their children were drinking was safe.
Unfortunately, in many schools, it wasn’t.
In district after district, lead was found to
be a problem; fountains had to be shut down
and bottled water brought in. It was not in every
school or every fountain; many got a clean bill of
health, but there was a sufficient number of problems for legislators
in New Jersey to call for funds to inspect the water in every
school in the state. Let’s be proactive rather than catching up, was
the basic attitude.
Let’s be clear from the start. This is not Flint. There is likely no
fault involved here. Nobody has been hiding the truth or deliberately
using improper water sources in their schools. But, particularly
in older buildings, lead deposits can build up. Changes in the
water source can be the cause. In some older buildings, lead solder
was used in joints. There are many other ways that the quality of
water can deteriorate over time.
Before events in Flint brought attention to the issue, these
small potential problems might have been ignored. But today,
with the Flint spotlight shining, lead in water is a potential issue
that should be faced.
When reports of schools with lead in their fountains circulated,
my immediate question was, what was involved in testing water for
lead. I Googled the question and found literally dozens of entries
including several from companies like Home Depot that offered
inexpensive and simple water testing kits. Was this something that
custodians could use to test and ensure that each school’s water
was safe and lead clear?
I put this question to John D’Angelo of Fuller & D’Angelo, an
architectural and engineering firm active in school design and
construction. John’s response was that they certainly could use
these kits to make preliminary tests but he would advise against it.
“Schools should have their testing done by independent licensed
and certified firms that can make a professional report to district
personnel and, more important, to the public.
“As a result of the Flint situation, this is a very emotional issue
— ‘Is my child being affected?’ and even the
most straightforward report from a school employee
is going to be viewed as biased. Get the job
done by a qualified independent inspector and
then publicize the report. Hopefully, the district
will get a clean bill of health. But if it does not,
provide the full report to the public, identify the
problem spots and tell what steps are being taken
to temporarily remove the problem (that often
involves shutting off a fountain and substituting
bottled water) and what steps will be taken over
time to correct it.”
As a sort of coda to John’s advice, one school district announced
that testing was underway but that what was discovered
would not be reported until all of the district’s fountains had been
inspected. That immediately set off alarms and suspicions that
there was a lot of lead contamination in the schools. There was
not; there were some trouble spots and the district was making a
proper response, but by mystifying the test results first, it raised
The bottom line: Have the water in your schools tested, let the public
know what was found, and if there are problems, get them fixed.
A separate, unrelated national issue could impact your school
district. It concerns facilities for transgender people. It may never
arise, but which is better? To have a transgender man with a beard,
use the girls’ room because the birth certificate says female, or to
have him use the boys’ room where he feels comfortable?
Two suggestions: Make sure all restroom stalls are private
(some schools have removed the stall doors) and provide several
unisex, single toilet rooms that are available for every person who
feels more comfortable using them.
This article originally appeared in the June 2016 issue of School Planning & Management.
Paul Abramson is education industry analyst for SP&M and president of Stanton Leggett & Associates, an educational facilities consulting firm based in Mamaroneck, N.Y. He was named CEPFI’s 2008 "Planner of the Year."