Let's work together on lead

Don Dulaney

At the last school board meeting, our board was asked to vote on an amendment to the student handbook to require all incoming kindergarteners be tested for lead.

This amendment did not pass, however, it’s not because school board members who voted against it are opposed to lead screenings. It was because making a change to the school handbook alone, especially when school enrollment is already underway, is not the right approach.

Lead poisoning has dire, long-term effects on children’s development, resulting in learning and behavioral problems. It’s a complex problem that requires all of us to work together on a solution.

Michigan City Area Schools was among the first districts in Indiana to take advantage of a free state program last school year to test lead levels in water at school buildings. We are pleased that all drinking, cooking and hand-washing water is safe for our students and staff. The City of Michigan City has also reassured families that our city’s water system is not a source of lead contamination.

We applaud the work of the Mayor’s Committee on Lead, which has identified lead paint in aging homes as the most likely source of lead contamination among children in our community. We also support our City Council’s continued focus on this issue, including efforts to engage all stakeholders and pursue federal grants for remediation and education.

For the past two years, Michigan City Area Schools has been raising awareness among families of our youngest students (who are most at risk), encouraging them to have children tested. We appreciate the work of both HealthLinc and the La Porte County Health Department, which have been educating parents about this important issue and providing free screenings. HealthLinc was present at all elementary schools in February during parent conferences and kindergarten roundup. Again this year, HealthLinc and the Health Department will offer free lead testing to children at the Citywide Back to School Rally on August 9. The County Health Department also plans to visit every school this fall to continue educating parents and administer free lead screenings during Lead Awareness Month in October.

In response to alarming lead levels among children in East Chicago, Indiana, state law now allows school corporations to require that students be tested for lead. The statute specifies the State Department of Health and State Board of Education must adopt joint rules concerning lead testing and maintain records of all tests conducted. But it’s my understanding that neither entity has yet established a database, so if we adopt a program at this time it would be up to us to create and maintain this database forever – not a small task and is not without cost.

Our school board plans to hold a public Work Session this fall to bring together experts who can guide us through the steps involved in creating an effective policy in compliance with this new law. It’s important to note that we may incur legal liabilities by creating an exclusionary rule in a handbook without first passing a district policy. At minimum, a lead screening policy would need to govern exclusions, religious waivers, data collection and data dispersal. Our attorneys would have to research local, state and national precedence to provide a legal framework. In addition, a policy is subject to two readings prior to passage.

Simply adding language to a handbook without discussion, follow through, and a solid plan for data collection won’t address this complex problem. Let’s communicate, collaborate and work smart together for the sake of our kids.

Don Dulaney is President of the Michigan City Area Schools Board of Trustees.

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