Detroit teacher wins case against district over water

Sarah Rahal
The Detroit News

Detroit — A Detroit teacher has won an unfair labor complaint filed with the Michigan Employment Relation Commission against the school district after she spoke out against contaminated water in her school and claimed she was disciplined by the district. 

Administrative Law Judge Julia Stern issued a ruling in favor of Katrina Brown on Monday and ordered the district to distribute an employee notice in all the schools laying out the district’s labor practices. 

The posting indicates that teachers were threatened with discipline if they spoke to outside agencies about the water quality and must state the district “will not interfere with, restrain or coerce employees in the exercise of their rights ...”

“The posting is the most important development,” said Shanta Driver, Brown’s attorney. “When a judge issues a posting, it’s usually very generic and you’re often not sure what you’re looking at. This posting is so specific, so clear and really shows how seriously the judge took this case.” 

Brown, a former science teacher at John R. King Elementary and Middle School, said she thought she would be lauded for speaking out the contaminated water in her school but instead was threatened and reassigned to a different school. 

Brown, a union steward, alleged that the drinking water at the King Elementary contains high levels of lead and copper and that the administration “worked to cover it up” and told parents the water was safe.

Separately, in September 2016, Brown filed a complaint with the Michigan Occupational Safety and Health Administration. According to a June 20 MiOSHA ruling, the Detroit Public Schools Community District did not provide employees at King potable water for hand washing, food washing, washing, eating and cooking utensils during an inspection period from March 30 to May 31 after the district shut off the water at King in early 2016.

The water fountains at King still are closed.

“I’ve been teaching there for over 10 years and receive a 91 teaching score (out of 100) and as soon as I reported the water quality, in 30 seconds of being evaluated, I was rated unsatisfactory,” Brown said to The Detroit News on Tuesday. 

She also filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in September against the district and Mayor Mike Duggan, stating she was harassed and forced to withdraw from teaching because she refused to allow the district “to poison” the children.

The district, she claimed, provided “inadequate bottled water in the hot final two weeks” of the spring term and eventually no water at all to children and staff.

The school district and Duggan’s office each have filed a motion to have the federal case dismissed. U.S. District Judge Bernard A. Friedman has not set a court date. 

Driver, Brown’s attorney, said the MERC ruling will help the federal case since it “makes it clear the district did discriminate and threaten more than one teacher,” she said Tuesday. 

The district declined to comment on pending litigation.

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 according to News archives. The district collected its own samples, and the results were reviewed by the Detroit Health Department.

“She organized with other teachers to bring clean water in the spring and in the fall,” Driver said. “Then, she was transferred to another school, she was given discipline and they refused to recognize her as a union steward.”

“It’s been a long fight for justice and I’m so happy to show everyone and for teachers not to be afraid,” Brown said. “We can’t be afraid to stand up...that’s what we teach kids every day.”

Brown said she hopes to return to King: “They have 921 students I want to go back to and they have openings I’m applying for.”

Staff Writer Jennifer Chambers contributed.