Newark: Lawsuit could reveal the truth about lead in school water

Christopher Cerf's solution to poisoned water
Christopher Cerf’s solution to poisoned water

Four Newark families, according to the website Politico-NJ, have filed a federal lawsuit against state and local officials over the contamination of the city school district’s drinking water with lead. That’s a good thing, not simply for the families involved–families in which children reportedly have already suffered physical symptoms from drinking the water–but also for everyone who wants to know what really happened in New Jersey’s largest school system

Since the beginning of he crisis, state and local officials have done little to provide information about how  the water in about half of all Newark schools became poisoned. Trials are a good way of finding the truth–so long as the parties don’t try to settle quickly.

The Politco-NJ story reports that:

“Attorneys for the plaintiffs said in the complaint that ‘thousands’ of children, parents and teachers have been exposed to harmful lead levels since March 2011 and that the defendants knew about the hazardous situation yet concealed the information.

“The complaint further accused the defendants of failing to change lead filters in a timely manner, misleading the public about whether the water was safe to drink, and otherwise ‘acting in a manner that shocks the conscience.

“’Thousands of our children were poisoned with lead, causing health problems such as decrease in cognitive ability, self-control, gastrointestinal problems, and an inability to focus,’” the complaint states. ‘In essence, the Defendants created and maintained an environment in which our children would not be able to reach their full academic and developmental potential.’”

The POllitico-NJ story reports the suit “names as defendants Gov. Chris Christie; the city of Newark; Christopher Cerf and Cami Anderson, the current and previous state-appointed schools superintendents; and Keith Barton, the district’s executive managing director of operations for facilities. It also names each member of the state Board of Education and others who have not yet been identified.”

Almost as soon as the water crisis was first revealed in this site,  Cerf has been ducking the obvious questions: How long has the water been poisoned? Why didn’t routine maintenance of water fountains and other plumbing cure, or at least reveal, the problem.

The memo revealing the state knew of lead contamination two years ago
The memo revealing the state knew of lead contamination two years ago

While he was dancing around the truth, the Newark Teachers Union published an internal district memorandum from 2014 in which state-appointed school officials revealed they were aware of the problem.

At a school board meeting following the revelation, Cerf insisted that a review of the paperwork, somehow, could not lead to any conclusions about how the 35,000-student school district somehow neglected its responsibility to ensure the drinking water in all 67 schools was safe.

Although the district issued documents indicating that water contamination spiked shortly after the Christie administration took over in Trenton in 2010–and became responsible for the state-operated school district–Cerf said he could not find any documents suggesting what the contamination levels were from 2004.

The district also argued that federal environmental officials had offered to help local district officials deal with the contamination but that the district refused–an indirect slap at the last local administrators removed after Cerf and Christie began appointing mostly New York officials to top positions in the state-operated district.

So what the citizens of Newark do not know is what happened between 2004–when the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) expressed an interest in the city school system’s water–and about 2012 when Christie-imposed budget cuts resulted in staff shortages among the facilities personnel who had responsibility for checking the water.

“When Marion Bolden was superintendent, she had a plan for the water and that’s what she told the federal agency,” said one school district employee who asked not to be identified because of possible retribution.

“But, once Christie got rid of her and Cliff Janey, brought in a bunch of  clueless people and began cutting back on maintenance, that’s when the real; problems began.”

Bolden and Janey were both state-appointed superintendents who served before Cerf began Christie’s state education commissioner and brought in Cami Anderson.

The New Jersey legislature has shown little interest in finding out what happened in Newark. Although state education Commissioner David Hespe has offered some legislative testimony, no committee in either house o f the Legislature has conducted full-scale hearings on the problem.

Trials–if they are allowed to go forward–have a way of bringing out the truth. It could start with what is called “pre-trial discovery” where lawyers can invoke the power of the courts for the Newark families to begin asking questions and demanding documents that, so far, the state-operated school regime has been unwilling or unable to produce.

Those same documents and interviews–known as depositions–often can be made public before a trial begins but usually  are available once courtroom proceedings began.

The big danger, of course, is that the parties will settle before the trial begins.


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