Detroit's Public Schools Are in Crisis: Students and Teachers Deal Daily with Rats, Mold and No Heat

"This is supposed to be America," says One Parent

Photo: Detroit Federation of Teachers

Rats and cockroaches scurry through the hallways, water leaks through the roof, toilets are broken, windows are littered with bullet holes and a musty aroma fills the air.

Sometimes, Shoniqua Kemp wonders whether her children would be better off going to school in a developing country instead of coping with the deplorable conditions at Osborn Evergreen Academy – one of numerous public schools in Detroit now under threat of closure due to unsafe and deteriorating conditions overseen by Darnell Earley, the former emergency manager for the city of Flint, Mich., which is now suffering a water crisis.

Earley, the state-appointed emergency manager for Detroit Public Schools since January 2015, has faced intense scrutiny in recent weeks over his role in moving Flint from the Detroit water system to the Flint River to save the city money, sending toxic, lead-contaminated water into thousands of homes. He announced on Tuesday that he will resign from his district position on Feb. 29.

That was welcome news to Kemp and other parents and teachers, who say that much work needs to be done to repair about 100 schools that have been crumbling in neglect for years in poverty-stricken neighborhoods as the district struggles to climb back from $3.5 billion in debt.

“This is supposed to be America – our kids deserve better,” says Kemp, 36, a family advocate for Osborn Evergreen Academy, where her children, Tyonn, 18, and Imani, 14, go to high school.

“It’s just unacceptable,” Kemp tells PEOPLE. “If I had a dog and mistreated that dog, certain laws would require that I become confined to a cell. And yet our students have suffered mistreatment for years. As Americans, we go over all the time to other countries to save them from desolation, but we can’t take care of our own schools in high-poverty areas? It’s a disgrace.”

Frustration peaked last week, when the Detroit Federation of Teachers filed a lawsuit calling for the district to fire Earley, end state control of the city’s schools and begin repairs so that schools can meet building-code standards and avoid the threat of closure, which would leave 47,000 students with few options.

“The condition of the schools is so decrepit in Detroit that you can hardly teach in them and kids can hardly learn in them,” says Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, a national teachers union that helped Detroit teachers bring the lawsuit.

“It’s willful, deliberate neglect,” she tells PEOPLE. Since the state of Michigan took control of the city’s public schools in 1999, ” they’ve steadily declined,” says Weingarten. “The city of Detroit is making a comeback, but not the schools. They’re in total shambles.”

In recent weeks, the district’s teachers have held a series of “sick outs” to draw attention to their miserable working environments, which include classrooms with no heat or too much heat, ceilings filled with holes and floors covered with rodent droppings, drafty windows, broken water fountains, no textbooks and moldy carpets and gymnasiums.

“The teachers haven’t had a raise in 10 years,” says Weingarten, “and yet they deal with conditions that few of us can imagine. I saw one classroom where they had all of these rat and mousetraps. The teacher comes in every morning with clean towels and disinfectant to clean up what was left behind the night before. No teacher should have to do that.”

At the same school, Cody High School, floors are buckling because there is no heat, says Weingarten. During winter months, students wear coats to class, dodging buckets that catch water leaking through the ceiling. And although the school is considered a technology magnet school, students have no access to Internet or Wi-Fi.

“How is that possible in 2016?” asks Weingarten. “It’s outrageous.”

Lakia Wilson, a counselor at Spain Elementary-Middle School for 19 years, says that an entire wing of her school is now closed because the gymnasium is filled with black mold that can be smelled throughout the building.

“The gym floor became warped from the roof leaking, so the district came out and took half the floor out and left the rest exposed,” she tells PEOPLE. “It’s been sitting that way for a year and a half. The district is saying the black material we’re seeing is adhesive, but we don’t trust what the district says. We’re all breathing mold.”

Exposure to mold, dust and indoor pests not only causes eye, ear, nose and throat irritation, it can also trigger asthma, health experts warn.

“I see a lot of nosebleeds, vomiting and upset stomachs on a daily basis, as well as quite a few kids who suffer from asthma,” India Brimberry, a certified medical assistant at Spain Elementary-Middle, tells PEOPLE. “It’s just not normal for human beings to live among mold, rodents, rats and roaches, and for building temperatures to swing from really cold to really hot. It’s pretty clear to me that the environmental conditions are affecting kids’ health.”

“Given the significant amount of time a child spends in school, it’s important to ensure a healthy learning environment so that children can reach their full potential,” adds Dr. Maida Galvez, a preventive medicine and pediatrics professor at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.

With an estimated 13 million missed school days in the United States due to asthma each year, says Galvez, “we need to critically look at our schools and what the school environment says about how we value education and most importantly, how we value our children.”

Until last November, children at Spain Elementary-Middle still played in one-half of the gym, says Lakia Wilson, but when the aroma became overwhelming, they switched to walking through halls to satisfy their physical education requirements.

“It used to be that they could go outside in warmer weather on the playground,” she tells PEOPLE, “but now the playground has a steam geyser coming from the ground, so it has been closed as well to prevent kids from getting burned. I feel like we’re being swallowed alive. We’re in a major city in America, but we have no voice. We are teaching in squalor with no books. We come to work depressed and bitter. We’re angry and insulted, but our complaints have fallen on deaf ears.”

Among those taking heat for the dire situation in Detroit’s schools is Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, who appointed Darnell Earley as the district’s emergency manager.

Snyder’s press secretary, Dave Murray, says in a statement to PEOPLE that “academics, finances and building conditions have been a problem in Detroit for years, and Gov. Snyder is committed to fixing the district’s most challenging issues so students will be able to graduate ready for college and careers and reach their full potential.”

Shoniqua Kemp hopes those repairs don’t come too late for her kids.

“My daughter suffers from heat stroke and there are days when she has to come home because the temperature is intolerable,” she tells PEOPLE. “Then on other days, it’s so cold that you can literally see the breath in front of your face.”

“When do we get to the point where we stop pointing fingers and start fixing the problem?” she asks, fighting back tears. “These are our kids we’re talking about. Most children in America have windows that aren’t broken, water fountains that work and gyms they can use. We’re fighting for the bare minimum. We deserve more than that.”

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