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How a Reporter Enlisted Teachers to Expose Hazards in Philly Schools

Some Philadelphia students were literally being poisoned at school and investigators documented the district’s failures to address the harmful conditions in its aging school buildings.

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Barbara Laker isn’t an education reporter. She doesn’t have a long list of teachers’ phone numbers in her contacts. So, it’s amazing that she was able to find and convince 24 teachers and other school employees from 19 elementary schools to swab pipes, drinking fountains and suspicious patches of black on classroom walls.

Philadelphia has more than 200 public schools built during an era when lead paint was slathered on every surface and asbestos was found in pipes. Laker, an investigative reporter with the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Philadelphia Daily News, wanted to determine if the schools were safe for students.

What she found was shocking. In a multi-part series, Laker and fellow reporters Wendy Ruderman and Dylan Purcell revealed the ways in which some Philadelphia students were literally being poisoned at school and documented the district’s failures to address the harmful conditions in its aging school buildings. Their reporting prompted the city and state to launch a massive, emergency school cleanup effort.

Laker shared insights into the team’s reporting process during a recent Education Writers Association seminar on the teaching profession.

The team of reporters examined five years of maintenance records to decide which schools needed testing. They limited their focus to elementary schools because younger children are the most vulnerable to environmental hazards.

Then they checked school websites, Facebook pages and showed up at union and other events frequented by teachers, nurses and other school staff to find people willing to conduct the tests they would need. The teacher would have to swab items at the school, put the swab in a water bottle and return it so it could be sent to a lab.

Teachers Covertly Swabbing Items

Once Laker contacted school employees, she had to convince them to help with the project, even though there was a chance they could be disciplined or fired.

“If they were skittish, I would give them copies of the stories I had done in the past,” Laker told reporters attending the EWA seminar.

She also enlisted members of the local teachers’ union to spread the word and vouch for the team of reporters.

Laker used a straightforward approach to enlist people to help: She told them exactly what she was doing and promised them anonymity.

“The only way to do this is to be totally up front with people,” she said.

She got permission from the organizer of a teacher conference to recruit at the event. When Laker showed up at the conference, she carried a big backpack filled with packets containing vials, wipes and instructions on how to perform the tests. If a teacher agreed to help with the test, they were given a kit, she said.

Not everyone followed through after agreeing to help.

“Some people chickened out and we lost a lot of kits,” Laker said.

School district officials were angry when they found out the reporters were contacting teachers. They accused the reporters of harassing hundreds of teachers, Laker said.

Old-Fashioned Shoe-Leather Reporting

Laker used old fashioned shoe leather reporting to find the families of sick children. After she heard about a boy who was exposed to high levels of lead in an elementary school classroom, she started hanging out in the school parking lot talking to parents. She was chased away by campus security, but finally learned the family’s name.

The mother eventually talked to Laker, who learned that her 6-year-old son, Dean Pagan, had severe lead poisoning after eating paint chips that had fallen on his desk over a lengthy period of time. The boy was afraid the mess the paint was making on his desk would get him into trouble, so he ate the chips.

Laker also found a girl who experienced severe asthma flare ups when she was at school. She had to be hospitalized repeatedly. The investigation found cockroaches, mold and dampness in Philadelphia public schools – all things that cause asthma.

The team of enlisted teachers swabbed suspicious pieces of school property and photographed them to ensure accuracy.

“We got some surprising results,” Laker said.

One teacher who had already taken several samples had a funny feeling about a pipe she passed in the hall. It wasn’t on the list, but she took a sample of the dust at its base anyway. The sample came back with extremely high asbestos levels – 8.5 million cancer-causing asbestos fibers per square centimeter – in the settled dust, Laker said.

Asbestos is a cause of mesothelioma and other forms of cancer. It isn’t  dangerous when it is intact, but when it crumbles, the fiber is released and can be inhaled, Laker said.

“We wrestled ethically with what to do,” Laker said. “The story wasn’t ready to run, but I decided to call the school district.”

District officials later said the problem was fixed and sent a report confirming it, but a swab taken later by the same teacher revealed the asbestos level was even higher after the repair.

‘Hold Them Accountable’

If done incorrectly, repairs can just stir up the dust and make things worse, Laker said.

In the end, the state of Pennsylvania allocated millions of dollars to clean up environmental hazards at Philadelphia schools over the summer. Laker and her team intend to follow up to see if they did the job right.

“You always have to hold them accountable,” she said.

Laker said a few teachers who took swabs for the investigation were moved to other classrooms or schools, but most of the teachers weren’t disciplined for participating.

“We are forever indebted to all the teacher staffers who helped us,” Laker said. “We know they risked their jobs.”