Richmond School Board: Do Norrell Elementary preschoolers need gas masks more than backpacks?
My name is Dr. Kim Allen. I, and other private citizens like me lend a voice to a concern for the safety of children, children like my four year old nephew Malachi. We speak on behalf of ourselves and our families. We do not represent our employers or other organizations to which we belong. Being a private citizen is a privilege and a powerful place to stand when addressing the safety of the children who attend Norrell Elementary School.
The question I asked myself was, “Would I be okay with Malachi being in the Norrell School building for 6 hours a day, 5 days a week? My answer was, “I don’t know.” Given that concern and the urgent nature of the matter, I helped to initiate this petition.
This petition has drawn national attention to an issue that is of longstanding concern to Richmond residents. It has created awareness about schools on landfills across the country and beyond. This petition has provided energy to beleaguered city residents who feel like they’ve been disregarded and disrespected by those of authority. And this petition has led to additional testing of the school building and grounds. These developments have empowered us as we’ve come to know ourselves as people who make a difference for our community.
We want to acknowledge and thank all who’ve signed this petition. In doing so, you have taken a stand for children like Malachi and his schoolmates. Your voice here says that every child deserves a great start to a quality education. Your voice here says that environmental safety is vital. Your voice says we are interested, include us.
Our aim is to keep things moving forward and ensure that the children attend school in a safe and nurturing environment. Given the community’s undeniable interest and support of this issue, we see several areas that would greatly improve the process of school re-openings. This petition as originally written did not provide our school officials with a clear opportunity to serve the community they represent.
There are three outcomes that will satisfy us, the petitioners.
The first is transparency. The public requests access to all testing that has been done inside the building and on the grounds of the school since July 2012. Additionally, we request the results of any tests and remediation work suggested, ordered, and/or completed prior to the school’s closing and afterwards by EPA, the Virginia Department of Health, the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, and any other regulatory body.
Second, we would like the data to be independently audited and summarized for the public in a way that addresses many concerns and that specifically addresses the question of whether the building and grounds are safe for 3 and 4 year old children.
Third, we request that school officials create and outline a process to ensure community engagement and parental involvement so as to empower interested citizens in supporting the thorough work of our representatives.
We are hopeful for a meeting with school officials in which we can allay concerns and develop next steps so that parents, the community, and school officials can feel secure and confident that we are moving forward in a manner that is best for the children of Richmond.
Portions of Original Petition
Norrell Elementary, the school where my four-year-old nephew (in the photo above) would have been assigned to start preschool, was built on a landfill as a separate school for black children and has been shut down twice for being unsafe. Yet, without any opportunity for public input, the Richmond School Board is continuing a long legacy of racism and environmental pollution associated with Norrell by re-opening the school.
When we send our kids off to school, we should be able to focus on what they'll be learning, not the levels of pollution they'll be exposed to. Students deserve a safe place to learn.
Residents have long been warning this school is unsafe. Norrell Elementary was built on a landfill. It was created to appease blacks in an attempt to defy the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education's court ruling to desegregate schools. It was closed in 1975 because of poisonous methane gas buildup from the landfill.
The district installed an underground venting system and in-class methane monitors, and Norrell was reopened two years later.
But, despite assurances from officials that the site was safe, an analysis in 2000 showed that one of the wells that fed flares to burn excess gas registered potentially explosive methane levels. The school was finally closed in 2006 after damage from Tropical Storm Ernesto.
Yet the community was not given an opportunity to ask important questions about the safety of the building and grounds. Unlike how other school moves have been handled -- with months of meetings and notice -- the decision to move young students, who are predominately low-income children of color, into Norrell Elementary was made without public input. Every community, including ours, deserves a voice.
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