A school in Queens, variously known as PS 256 and Rockaways for the Queens borough it inhabits in Belle Harbor, has a long and sad history.
As a school for special-needs kids, it was previously owned by Temple Beth-El, and purchased in August of 2008 by the New York City Education Department. The condition of parts of the school, most notably the cafeteria and some classrooms, leaves a lot to be desired. Peeling, lead-based paint, broken and crumbling plaster, and broken tiles in ceilings and floor throughout the facility are creating the potential for lead poisoning and asbestos-related diseases.
According to the school’s website, PS256 is a District 75 early childhood (age 3) through high school facility with 120 students, some over the age of 21. Four percent are English language students, and 82 percent are special needs students provided for under Title 1 funding. The school’s population is made up of 58.6 percent African Americans, 20.9 percent Hispanics, 16.2 percent white children and 2.5 percent Asian children, with the balance comprised of Native Americans or those of two or more races, which clearly places it in the category of a “minorities” school.
Student teacher ratios are excellent at about 2 to 1, but seventy-five percent of students are classed as needing “intensive management and therapeutic services” to succeed educationally. This includes students with such crippling learning disabilities as autism, severe emotional disturbance and developmental delays.
With the educational deck already stacked against them, these young people don’t need the added disadvantage of ingesting lead (which causes developmental disabilities) or asbestos, which can cause a whole range of illnesses, from asbestosis to digestive system cancers to mesothelioma – a particularly virulent form of lung cancer that often doesn’t manifest for several decades. When it does, most confirmed diagnoses lead, in a year or so, to death, because there is no cure for mesothelioma, and treatments like radiation or surgery are largely palliative to reduce pain and difficulty breathing.
The problem has been ongoing since the Education Department bought the school. In spite of federal laws mandating routine inspection and remediation of asbestos if found, PS 256 has limped along since its July, 2007 inspection with little more remediation than notes jotted in a review form. Even with the asbestos finding, the school allowed students and teachers to complete the 2007-2008 year. Not until then was the building closed so that work crews could repair some of the more hazardous problems.
Now students, staff and some parents, who say they are satisfied with the teaching staff, teaching methods and results, but not with the condition of the building, are showing their dissatisfaction by filing a $500-million lawsuit against the New York City Department of Education for taking 10 years to clean up the mess inside PS 256.
Ralph DeSimone, a lawyer representing them, says he plans to get a court order for independent testing of the school’s indoor environment, especially its air. DeSimone also wants the Education Department to pay the ongoing costs of monitoring students and staff for potential asbestos and lead exposures.
DeSimone, who calls the delayed repair work an example of the Education Department’s discriminatory policies, says the lawsuit is not meant to be punitive but to set an example; discriminating against minority schools will not be tolerated.
The Department of Education disputes the allegations that it is discriminating, or that the school is dangerous. Department spokeswoman Margie Feinberg was quoted as saying: “We only open safe schools.”
Teacher’s union President Randi Weingarten has questioned why the Department bought the building, knowing that the repairs needed to make it safe would be both extensive and expensive.
Sources: New York Daily News, New York City School System