Detroit students strike for safe water on Count Day

Sarah Rahal
The Detroit News
Students sign up to test the water on a list of Detroit public schools that were found to have high concentrations of lead.    The students were purposely absent during count day at their regular school in protest of DPSCD not having an adequate plan to address lack of clean drinking water.

Detroit — Two dozen students gathered in a Midtown common room instead of attending classes Wednesday — Michigan's fall Count Day — to demand safe drinking water throughout the Detroit Public Schools Community District.

The students gathered at Cass Corridor Commons for classes on the impact of lead and copper poisoning, how to test water at home, natural remedies and a history of student activism. The #DoWeCount strike demanded city-wide water testing, support for wraparound services for those with poisoning and the attention of officials to act now. 

A statement from the district said Superintendent Nikolai Vitti  "fully engaged students and addressed their concerns, by providing answers well after the community meetings concluded. Dr. Vitti also sent backpack letters home to families and sent continuous robocalls and text messages home. The district issued a statement carefully outlining next steps."

Just days before the first day of school on Sept. 4, Vitti turned off drinking water inside all 106 school buildings after testing at an initial 16 schools showed high levels of copper or lead. Further testing showed 57 schools have high levels of copper and/or lead and that an estimated $500 million in building repairs were needed.

In the meantime, schools are using water coolers, which will cost the district $200,000 for the next several months.

The students said they were forced to act on Count Day after their voices weren't heard at a series of meetings held by Vitti.

"We're given the runaround, told to be quiet, to stay in our places and to let them work," said Imani Sharp, 17, a senior at Mumford High School. "We have no problem with the hydration systems if they can show statistics about how they work, and the water coolers aren't a solution if they're always empty."

According to the Michigan Department of Education, students with excused absences on Count Day can still be accounted for within 30 days. Students with unexcused absences who attend school within 10 days also will be counted. The count also applies to suspended students who attend within 45 calendar days of Count Day.

DPSCD receives $7,900 for each student counted, according to the state funding allowance. Because the students protesting plan to return to school Thursday, the strike is mostly symbolic. However, if the students weren't counted, it would end up costing the district about $190,000. 

"We’re not being heard," said Sharp, who is also the Mumford student council president. "My principal Angela Prince told me not to bite the hand that feeds me ... we’re getting their attention, but they don’t want to meet our demands, which are simple: We want free water testing, (Individualized Education Programs on lead poisoning) and to regulate suspensions. People are getting suspended for nonviolent behavior."

The district said officials will announce a long-term water solution at a school board meeting on Tuesday.

"The majority of our students attended classes today and this is a clear indicator that we are definitely making every day count," according to the district statement. 

Sharp said Mumford High sent out voicemails saying students would be reprimanded if a walkout took place. Other students, she said, were bribed to be present for Count Day. 

"They were giving out free stuff, said there would be an expanded lunch menu, free homecoming tickets, it was also dress down day," said Maya Soloman, 17, a senior at Cass Technical High School. "They said there would be easy tests with open notes and visits from celebrities ... the number of bribes given was crazy."

Detroit public school students attend class at the Cass Corridor Commons in Detroit, Wednesday. The students were purposely absent during count day at their regular school in protest of DPSCD not having an adequate plan to address lack of clean drinking water.

The district recently revised its Code of Conduct, with student input, to reduce the use of suspensions and plans to eventually eliminate out-of-school suspensions, spokeswoman Chrystal Wilson said.

"In addition, we are partners with the Detroit Health Department that offers the free lead and copper testing to students," she said. 

The students who protested at Cass Corridor Commons were given small stipends to go into neighborhoods near schools and test the water. They also had lessons on the causes and impacts of lead poisoning. 

Lead poisoning can build up in the body over months or years and can be fatal at high levels. No safe blood lead level in children has been identified.

Lead exposure can affect nearly every system in the body and because lead exposure often occurs with no obvious symptoms, it frequently goes unrecognized, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Gloria House, professor emerita in African Studies at the University of Michigan and Wayne State University, led the lecture on the history of student activism. 

"We can not underestimate what's happened in Detroit," said House, 77. "School buildings have been allowed to deteriorate to unsafe levels and ... this is not coincidental. Detroit is undergoing changes.

"... We would not be sitting here with the freedoms we have if it weren't for the people who fought before us and I admire what you, the students, are doing here today."

Twitter: @SarahRahal_