For at least three years, Portland Public Schools has had a districtwide prohibition against drinking from school sinks to avoid water that might contain elevated levels of lead. Yet emails reviewed by WW show top school officials decided not to publicize the guideline, apparently preferring to let children drink contaminated water rather than alarm parents and teachers.
Last week, following WW's revelation of elevated lead levels at dozens of Portland Public Schools buildings, school officials told parents the district has a guideline against drinking from school sinks.
Sinks may be less safe because many sinks were not tested for lead in 2001, when fountains were, documents show.
The prohibition came as a surprise to parents.
"That is unbelievable," says Beverly Cleary School parent Emily Petterson, whose child attends class in the Rose City Park building, where elevated lead readings were found this spring. "I am 100 percent sure that if teachers and staff had truly known, there is no way they would be letting our children fill their water bottles daily, and there is no way they would be filling their own coffee makers with that water."
Since at least 2012, when an extensive round of lead tests was completed, the district has had the sink guideline in place, and yet a dozen parents and staff contacted by WW said they didn't know about it before this spring, if ever.
Wilson High School social studies teacher Hyung Nam says he didn't know about the guideline until this spring.
"They didn't give us any specific results," he said. "The effect is that all of us neglected it, didn't think it was a big deal."
The quiet sink prohibition is the latest example of the school district struggling under Superintendent Carole Smith to communicate vital information, even when withholding it might compromise children's safety.
It follows furor over PPS's failure to disclose the results of lead tests that were apparently conducted between 2010 and 2012 at all but a few schools, serving kindergartners through high school seniors ("Failing the Test," WW, June 1, 2016). WW obtained a PPS document with results in February 2015 in response to a public records request, yet until WW asked questions about the tests late last month, the district did not tell parents or teachers.
Smith has placed two top administrators on leave, but has struggled to explain which of the lead problems have been fixed.
The district declined to discuss the lead tests or its sink guideline with WW, saying through a spokeswoman that it won't discuss policies subject to the investigation by the law firm of Stoll Berne, which is expected to take 30 days.
"That's all part of the investigation," says PPS spokeswoman Courtney Westling. "Our hope is we are also going to get answers."
School Board Chairman Tom Koehler said he didn't know about the sink guideline until WW contacted him. "If we don't expect people to drink out of sinks, we better make that very clear and consistent in our communication," Koehler said.
Regardless of what the district's top officials did or did not know about test results from 2010 to 2012, they decided at least to write a guideline warning students and staff not to use sinks for drinking water.
"Portland Public Schools asks students and staff not to drink from the sinks in our classrooms," the guideline says on the district website.
The guideline notes that "If building staff 'flush' the sinks (letting the water run at the start of a day for approximately 10 minutes or until cold), then the faucet may be used for drinking water," but it doesn't make clear how students or teachers would know if that had been done.
The district's current daily task list for custodians includes a requirement to flush every fountain but not any sinks, according to a copy of the checklist shared with WW. If water sits in the pipes, it can pick up contaminants.
In environmentally friendly Portland, students carrying a reusable water bottle from home and refilling from the faucets at school is a common occurrence.
Emails reviewed by WW show top district officials in 2012 discussed placing warning labels on sinks across the district, but decided against it, fearing it would frighten parents.
On Oct. 24, 2012, PPS senior communications manager Erin Barnett sent an email to district officials, including then-facilities director Tony Magliano, discussing whether to place warning stickers on school sinks throughout the district.
Barnett wanted to know if the message could be scaled back.
"Can custodians have the lead test results and ONLY put stickers on sinks that really can't be used for drinking water?" emailed Barnett. "How do we avoid undue alarm among staff and parents?" (The district declined to make Barnett available for comment on this story.)
PPS ultimately placed warning stickers at Rigler School in Northeast Portland—but not across the district.
Magliano, who became the district's chief operating officer until he was placed on paid leave June 2, admitted to WW that the district failed to sufficiently warn teachers and parents, noting there has been a notice on the PPS website "for ages."
But before Smith placed him on leave last week, Magliano told WW the district should be "marking every freaking sink" until the message was clear. "If we're not going to make sinks lead-free, they need to be posted clearly not to drink from," he said June 1.
Parents are now outraged that their children have been drinking from the sinks for three years after the district created a guideline against it. They say the district still hasn't done enough to stop drinking from sinks—even after taping off water fountains May 27.
"Yesterday, they weren't doing anything to stop it," said Standard Schaefer, father to a Beverly Cleary fifth-grader, speaking after water fountains at the school were taped off but sinks were unattended. "There's access to them."