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Teacher sues Detroit district, mayor over school water

Jennifer Chambers

A Detroit teacher is suing the district, Mayor Mike Duggan and other officials, alleging that students were poisoned by contaminated drinking water at a school.

In a lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Detroit on Thursday, Katrina Brown, a teacher with the Detroit Public Schools Community District, alleges she was retaliated against, harassed and forced to withdraw from teaching because she refused to allow the district “to poison” the children she teaches. Brown alleges the water at John R. King school contained high levels of lead and copper.

Brown also said she developed a rash from drinking the water and became ill.

She alleges her civil rights were violated and filed the lawsuit under the first and 14th amendments to the U.S. Constitution, the Clean Water Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Michigan Constitution, the Michigan Whistleblowers’ Protection Act and other laws.

After the district shut off the water at King in early 2016, the district provided “inadequate bottled water in the hot final two weeks” of the spring school term and eventually no water at all to children and staff, the lawsuit alleges.

In 2016, King was among 15 district school buildings that tested positive for high lead levels. In one building, a drinking fountain recorded 100 times the allowable limit. The district collected its own samples, and the results were reviewed by the Detroit Health Department.

Brown also alleges children suffered in oppressive, overcrowded classrooms without air conditioning.

“DPSCD officials are repeating the grave, catastrophic errors of the government officials of Flint, Michigan, by continuing to expose an undisclosed number of children to dangerous levels of lead and copper in their drinking water, and victimizing individuals who speak the truth,” the lawsuit said.

Brown said she developed a rash from drinking the water and became ill.

Brown is seeking damages for loss of pay and reputation, emotional pain and suffering, and mental and physical pain.

The lawsuit also names as defendants former DPS transition manager Steven Rhodes, former interim Superintendent Alycia Meriweather and others.

The district had no comment.

Melvin Butch Hollowell, corporation counsel for Duggan, said “we have just received a copy of the complaint in this matter and are in the process of carefully reviewing it. The allegations are, on their face, false and irresponsible. We look forward to vigorously defending this case in court.”

Rhodes declined to comment.

A state workplace safety and health agency fined the district for violating sanitation laws at one of its schools as recently as May 31 and ordered that potable water be provided by July 24.

According to a June 20 ruling by the Michigan Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the district did not provide employees at John R. King Academy with potable water for hand washing, food washing, washing, eating and cooking utensils during an inspection period from March 30 to May 31.

The agency fined the district $4,000 and ordered it to provide clean water at the school in the next three weeks.

In February, the district said drinking water in all 94 of its public schools fell within federal guidelines for lead and copper following environmental treatments at 10 buildings that started last spring.

In July, district officials said testing in March showed the water was safe to drink across the district. A lab report testing copper and lead dated March 22 listed 10 samples from King as “acceptable.”

Jason Moon, a spokesman for the Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs, said the MiOSHA inspection was in response to an employee health complaint.

“During MIOSHA’s inspection, it reviewed water test results in 2016 (tests conducted by the employer through commercial laboratories) that showed high levels of copper in water in some school fixtures. Employees were provided potable water for drinking, but not for washing, cooking and other purposes.

No high levels of lead were determined in the 2016 testing,” Moon said in an email.