High lead levels found in paint at Bridgeport’s McClellan Elementary School
Teachers say Chicago Public Schools officials didn’t act on concerns about flaking paint until teachers did their own lead testing.
Parents and teachers at a Bridgeport elementary school say Chicago Public Schools officials delayed for months testing that last week found high levels of lead in three rooms, including a special education classroom.
Among the rooms tested at McClellan Elementary School was one for middle school students with cognitive or physical disabilities, including those deemed “medically fragile.” A first-grade classroom and a counselor’s office also tested positive for elevated lead levels.
The special education classroom was beginning to show signs of paint chipping in October, according to teachers. They say they brought the matter to the principal, who reportedly was assured by CPS officials there wasn’t a health threat. CPS, they said, did not act until teachers performed their own testing.
“We are taking this situation extremely seriously,” McClellan Principal Carrie Ann Cole wrote in a letter to parents last week.
Cole said students were moved to other classrooms because of the “elevated levels of lead” found by CPS. The specific levels haven’t been made public.
If breathed in, lead dust can damage the brain and cause other severe health issues. It can be particularly damaging to young children.
In a written statement, CPS officials said they acted quickly to test for lead last week and denied that there was any foot-dragging.
“CPS strives to address all paint when it begins to flake and fall. Lead-based paint is not a danger unless disturbed and ingested,” the statement said.
Now, the officials said, all classrooms in the building will be tested for lead over the upcoming winter break.
Built in 1881, McClellan, 3527 S. Wallace St., has a high number of students with disabilities, according to teachers.
One parent with a physically disabled child said the problem is extremely stressful as she worries about her son’s health.
“My son is a medically fragile child,” Bertha Alderete said. “If he has any type of lead in his system, how is it going to affect him?”
Alderete’s 12-year-old son has a pacemaker due to heart defects and has seizures. His classroom was one of those tested for high levels of lead.
She’s going to have her son’s blood tested this week and will follow up with tests for her two other children attending the school — a daughter and another son.
Koren Stewart said she is going to get her twin daughters and son to a doctor for blood tests. The twins, both special education students in seventh grade, have been sick for months, she said. They were both in one of the classrooms with the high lead levels. Her son is in fifth grade.
“I’ve been stressed since October,” Stewart said. “They are constantly coming home from school sick. Literally every week.”
She still has questions about CPS officials’ response to the problem. An online meeting between parents and CPS late last week didn’t provide many answers, she said.
“You can see the peeling paint,” Stewart said. “I didn’t think about it being dangerous.”
Special education teacher Lekicia Foster said she complained to Cole in October and she believes CPS officials downplayed concerns about chipping paint.
“They told us there was nothing to worry about,” Foster said.
After Thanksgiving break, large amounts of paint peeled and fell from the ceiling of the special education classroom, Foster said.
Some teachers tested paint chips using a swab kit bought online and found lead levels last week. CPS followed with its own testing, which led to the letter from Cole.
One teacher said some students with sensory issues were constantly putting things in their mouths and she worries they potentially are ingesting lead dust.
“This is an unsafe environment for kids with cognitive disabilities,” said Kelly Harmon, a special education teacher at McClellan. “For the kids that I work with, this is a really big deal.”
Teachers say there are other rooms at McClellan with peeling paint.
Harmon is concerned other CPS schools may have similar lead issues.
“There’s no way in hell we’re the only school where paint is chipping,” she said.
Brett Chase’s reporting on the environment and public health is made possible by a grant from The Chicago Community Trust.