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Chicago Public Schools Fri Oct 24 2014

Chicago Organizers Protest Lead-Contaminated Schools

Demonstrators protest lead-contaminated schools outside CPS' Loop headquarters. Photo by Kelly Hayes

Organizers with Chicago Light Brigade (CLB) demonstrated outside a board of education meeting Wednesday morning to call for immediate action on lead-based paint contamination in school buildings -- a hazard they suspect is widespread in Chicago.

Protesters claimed Chicago Public Schools officials knowingly ignored reports of hazardous lead contamination at Gale Elementary Community Academy in Rogers Park for at least five years before they began removing the lead-contaminated paint earlier this year.

CLB organizer Kelly Hayes said CPS only took action on the cleanup at Gale Elementary because Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan forced it to do so following media investigations into the school's condition.

"They knew about it for years and did nothing," Hayes said.

CLB released a report Tuesday outlining the conditions at Gale Elementary and CPS' failure to respond in an appropriate fashion.

The report exhibits internal CPS documents showing the district knew about lead problems at Gale Elementary since at least 2009.

Crumbling lead-based paint at Gale Elementary. Photo from Chicago Light Brigade, via Facebook

One of the biggest hazards with deteriorating lead-based paint is the presence of lead dust. It's highly toxic to people and is easily spread and breathed into the lungs by air circulation.

A 2012 Chicago Reader article summarized the hazard like this:

"It doesn't take much: a sugar packet's worth of lead dust scattered across a football field is enough to poison a child."

Lead poisoning can cause permanent learning and mental disabilities and lead to lowered student performance.

School conditions like this can contribute to higher rates of youth incarceration as well, Hayes said.

Chicago Light Brigade is a network of community activists and organizers focused on defending public education and fighting youth incarceration - two issues that Hayes believes are directly related.

Babur Balos, another CLB organizer at Wednesday's demonstration, accused CPS of letting schools like Gale Elementary fall into disrepair on purpose.

"They're starving certain schools (with budget cuts) because they want them fail," Balos said.

He believes this is part of CPS' plan to privatize more schools. Low-income students and students of color are being most affected, he said.

"These cuts have led to serious safety issues inside schools," Babur said. "Teachers and students are being put at risk and CPS is hiding this issue."

CLB is demanding an independent investigation into this matter, to reveal the extent of lead contamination across the school district.

"We want CPS to release lead reports on all schools built prior to the lead ban in 1978," Hayes said. "But CPS doesn't answer our FOIA requests."

CPS officials could not be readily reached for comment on any specific allegations, but CPS spokesperson Bill McCaffrey had this to say in an email statement Wednesday:

"Chicago Public Schools' top priority is the safety and well-being of its students, teachers and staff. Our facilities team continuously monitors buildings for any unsafe conditions, which includes preventing any buildings with lead-based paints from posing a health threat.

As a precautionary measure, CPS will be evaluating Gale Math and Science Academy this evening and determine what steps, if any, are necessary to provide students with a healthy learning environment."

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