As It Happens

'Grossly unfair' that Detroit children don't have clean water in school: official

Water fountains in Detroit public schools have been shut off, leaving thousands of students and staff at the schools high and dry. And Terrence Martin, Sr. of the Detroit Federation of Teachers says he's not sure when the water will flow again.

The decision was made after high levels of lead and copper were found in the water

A student gets water from a cooler in the hallway at Gardner Elementary School in Detroit on Tuesday. (Paul Sancya/Associated Press)

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Detroit public school students are facing more than the usual pressures of new teachers, classes and homework. They're worried about the drinking water.

It's been turned off at all of the city's more than 100 schools, due to high levels of lead and copper  — a decision affecting more than 50,000 students.

And there's still no word on when the taps and fountains will get turned back on.

Terrence Martin, Sr., is the vice president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers. He also has a son attending public school in the city.

He spoke with As it Happens host Helen Mann from Detroit. Here is some of their conversation.

Mr. Martin, Do you know how and why [the water] is unsafe?

Yes. To the school district's credit, they conducted water testing over the spring and summer at about 24 schools. And of the 24, 16 of them reported back high levels of lead and copper. So as a precautionary measure, they just shut off the water in all of the schools.

Teacher Cedric Cook pushes cases of water into Noble School in Detroit on Tuesday. (Paul Sancya/Associated Press)

Do you know if this is the first year they've conducted these tests?

There was some very surface testing done by the city back in 2016. But this is the first time that the school district has done the expansive testing.

Given that, do you have any way of knowing how long the school kids have been drinking this water before the taps were shut off?

We have no way of knowing. And this is not a new problem. In 2016, there was a national awareness of the conditions of the Detroit public schools. Back then it was really the physical plant, mold, leaky roofs, etcetera. But we had no knowledge back then — or even now to some degree — of how long we've been dealing with bad water.

It's been really hot in Detroit. How are students and staff coping with this?

In many instances it's very unbearable. We have a handful of our schools that have air-conditioning, but over 80 do not. And the issue with the water has simply exacerbated that problem.

So where are the kids and staff getting their drinking water?

Kids and staff are getting their drinking water from district-provided water coolers. There's a water cooler at every school, on every floor. The union has really stepped up and provided water as well to students at all schools.

We're seeing reports where parents are sending bottled water with their kids. It's almost like they don't trust that the school or the union or anybody else is going to take care of them.

"For our students who have to deal with trauma in their neighbourhoods, homelessness, the other factors that poverty causes on top of this, is just grossly unfair to this population of children.- Terrence Martin Sr., vice-president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers

Parents are sending bottled water, as they can afford to do that. These are the bare minimum, the bare necessities that our students need to be successful in the classroom. And that's just a short-term solution to this issue. We really need to be looking at the infrastructure problem. At this particular time, we don't know if it's a city issue, or if it's just a school district issue. Those are the questions that need to be answered for the community as quickly as possible.

So who's responsible for fixing this?

Good question. Until we know exactly what the root cause of this is, it could be the school district, it could be the city, it could be the state of Michigan. What you're seeing today is just years and years of folks in power ignoring the quality of the environment that our kids were learning in, and our teachers were teaching in.

Do you think this situation would be seen as acceptable anywhere else in the United States?

Absolutely not. And we're not accepting it here either.

What's the message your son and these other kids are getting from the fact that this has been allowed to happen?

They're questioning who really cares about them. To have to deal with water, and washing your hands, and getting a drink is just absolutely absurd. For our students who have to deal with trauma in their neighbourhoods, homelessness... the other factors that poverty causes on top of this is just grossly unfair to this population of children.

Written by Kevin Ball and Nathan Swinn. Interview produced by Nathan Swinn. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

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