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Lead Levels and Legal Battles: Walker County Schools' Mounting Controversies
Elevated Lead Levels in New Test Results and the Court Case Challenging Two Walker County School Board Members
A Lesson Not Learned
Where there is no accountability, history is destined to repeat itself. The unaccountable leadership of Walker County Schools seems intent to repeat history and repeat mistakes.
A few months ago, a concerning revelation came to light: Superintendent Damon Raines had withheld information about elevated lead levels found in the drinking water of four elementary schools. The tests were conducted in December 2022. The disclosure was only made when I brought the issue to the public's attention in a June article.
Not only did Superintendent Raines fail to share this vital information with the school board at the time he received the results, but the district failed to even inform the water provider. Further, it took my exposé—written six months after he received the results—for him to finally inform staff and parents and pledge to take necessary corrective measures for the affected water sources. You'd assume such a blunder would serve as a lesson. Unfortunately, it seems it didn't.
Following this fiasco, Superintendent Raines promised to conduct more extensive water tests across other schools and filters across the district. The results from newly tested schools began trickling in back in mid-September. Disturbingly, there is no mention of these new findings on any official school district platforms, be it their website or social media channels. Neither have they been shared through press releases or media reports. Conversations with district employees and parents suggest another lapse in communication and transparency, with the school district leadership once again failing to transparently share the findings.
Below are the results for all schools tested since last November. The analysis date is listed as well. Results from Ridgeland High School, North Lafayette Elementary, and Gilbert Elementary are the most recent. You may also visit the website of the testing provider here: Clean Water for Georgia Kids
Last time, Superintendent Raines deflected concerns by incorrectly portraying the 15 ppb EPA action level as a safety standard. He also cited the percentage of taps above the action level as a way to downplay the issue. While his logic was flawed, let's use it for the recent results at Ridgeland High School.
Thirty one percent of taps tested at Ridgeland came back above the action level. 46% exceeded the “stop use” level guidance from the testing provider. One tap had a lead level 113 times the action level! For some reason 15% of taps were not even tested. Worryingly, these were mostly in the kitchen and cafeteria.
I reached out to Superintendent Raines regarding this issue, but unfortunately, I didn't get a reply. Nonetheless, feedback from parents and staff indicates that steps have been taken to cover some of the tainted taps, which is a positive step compared to previous incidents. However, the glaring omission of a thorough notification remains both puzzling and unacceptable.
Basics to Remember About Lead in Drinking Water
No Safe Level
Lead is a toxic metal that can be harmful to human health even at low exposure levels. The action levels for water lead levels are regulatory standards set by agencies such as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). They are designed to trigger water system responses and remediation efforts but should not be interpreted as safety thresholds for human consumption. The CDC, EPA, American Academy of Pediatrics and other health authorities have made clear that there is no safe level of lead exposure.1
The effects of lead exposure are cumulative, meaning that repeated exposures, even at low levels, can accumulate in the body over time and lead to adverse health effects. It’s worse for females. For children this means the danger is often not acute lead poisoning so much as it is the slow effects of low level lead toxicity and cumulative exposure slowly causing damage over time.2
Long term Effects for Females
More than 50% of any lead that is ingested during childhood and adolescence will remain in the body in the bones and teeth. During pregnancy this lead is released and poses the very real danger of acute lead toxicity for their unborn child. 3
Certain populations, such as infants, children, and pregnant women, are particularly vulnerable to the effects of lead. In children, low levels of exposure have been linked to damage to the central and peripheral nervous system, learning disabilities, shorter stature, impaired hearing, and impaired formation and function of blood cells. These effects are irreversible.
Multiple Exposure Routes
People can be exposed to lead from various sources other than drinking water, including contaminated soil, lead-based paint, and certain imported goods. When combined with lead in drinking water, the total exposure can be significant. All routes of exposure contribute to a person’s cumulative exposure. 4
Action Levels are Not Health-Based
The action level cited by news media and superintendent Raines for lead in drinking water is not a health-based standard. It's a regulatory benchmark that, if exceeded, triggers certain requirements for water systems, such as additional testing, public education, and corrective actions. 5
Variability in Sampling
When testing for lead at a single water tap or faucet, it's essential to recognize that a single sample may not accurately represent the true lead concentration or exposure. This is due to the unpredictable nature of how lead can flake off or leach into the water from the pipes and fixtures. Consequently, a single sample might show minimal lead content at one point, yet a subsequent sample taken shortly after could reveal alarmingly high levels. This inconsistency emphasizes the inherent danger of relying on just one sample to declare the water safe. Further still, the action levels used by superintendent Raines are not even meant for use by schools! They are specifically designed for use by water providers and authorities.6
Equating safety with being below the action level —as the superintendent has done— gives rise to a misguided sense of security. This can lead to complacency among leadership, administrators, staff, students, and the general public.7
The EPA has information for schools on its website which, while insufficient and lacking a safety threshold, contains the following guidance.
In the backdrop of the drinking water situation is the continuing ethical controversy surrounding two Walker County Board of Education members.
On September 27, 2023, a petition was filed in Walker County Superior Court, challenging the eligibility of members Mike Carruth and Karen Harden to serve. The case is against the members in their individual capacity and not against the board or the school district.
The initial submission shown below starts the process in an interesting and rarely seen legal mechanism called Quo Warranto. A notable instance of its use in Georgia occured in 2016 when a case was successfully brought to challenge and remove the Mayor of Roswell. The same attorney from that case now represents the applicant challenging the Walker County school board members.
In such proceedings, a judge's approval of the initial filing is required. Only then can the case advance, allowing for a more detailed petition that presents the factual arguments against the board members to be submitted.
Interestingly, this initial filing remains pending, even a month after its submission. Given that such approvals are usually a matter of routine in past quo warranto scenarios, the latest issues in the school district may get the attention of the court to prompt action on the still lingering petition.
Ethics Concerns For Superintendent
The Georgia Professional Standards Commission has a code of ethics which applies to all certified educators in the state of Georgia. “The code defines unethical conduct justifying disciplinary sanction and provides guidance for protecting the health, safety and general welfare of students and educators, and assuring the citizens of Georgia a degree of accountability within the education profession. " Several standards are contained in the code.
Standard 9: Professional Conduct - An educator shall demonstrate conduct that follows generally recognized professional standards and preserves the dignity and integrity of the education profession. Unethical conduct includes but is not limited to a resignation that would equate to a breach of contract; any conduct that impairs and/or diminishes the certificate holder’s ability to function professionally in his or her employment position; or behavior or conduct that is detrimental to the health, welfare, discipline, or morals of students; or failure to supervise a student(s). [Emphasis added]
It would seem clear that based on conduct surrounding the two instances regarding the drinking water at Walker County Schools, superintendent Raines clearly failed to follow standard nine.
Another standard regards honesty.
Standard 4: Honesty - An educator shall exemplify honesty and integrity in the course of professional practice.
When Superintendent Raines appeared on the local Judy O’Neal Morning show on UCTV a caller asked about the first lead contamination instance and the failure to disclose the issue.
Following his appearance on the show no records have been found to verify his claim that school board members were in the loop the entire time. In fact, Raines provided a timeline to a concerned parent which confirms he made false statements during his UCTV appearance. The timeline is shown below.
According to Georgia law, any citizen of the state of Georgia may file a complaint against a certified/licensed educator. Concerned citizens may file a complaint by following the instructions on the Georgia Professional Standards Commission website.
The leadership of all public schools must embrace accountability and transparency on all matters but especially on matters of public health, safety, ethics and governance. The students, families and community deserve nothing less.
This repeat failure of transparency and accountability in matters of student health and welfare is unacceptable. The community deserves to know if school water is contaminated so families can make informed decisions. Prompt, clear communication should be standard procedure.
Communication failures with the water issues reveal deep ethical issues in the school district. This concern is magnified as two school board members concurrently face legal scrutiny and likely removal from office over their eligibility to serve. Such incidents raise serious questions about the district's leadership and ethical integrity.
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Blood lead levels in children | Lead | CDC. (n.d.). https://www.cdc.gov/nceh/lead/prevention/blood-lead-levels.htm
Lead (PB) toxicity: Signs and symptoms | Environmental Medicine | ATSDR. (n.d.). https://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/csem/leadtoxicity/signs_and_symptoms.html
Téllez‐Rojo, M. M., Hernández-Ávila, M., Lamadrid‐Figueroa, H., Smith, D. R., Hernández‐Cadena, L., Mercado, A., Aro, A., Schwartz, J., & Hu, H. (2004). Impact of Bone Lead and Bone Resorption on Plasma and Whole Blood Lead Levels during Pregnancy. American Journal of Epidemiology, 160(7), 668–678. https://doi.org/10.1093/aje/kwh271
Blood lead levels in children | Lead | CDC. (n.d.). https://www.cdc.gov/nceh/lead/prevention/blood-lead-levels.htm
3Ts for Reducing Lead in Drinking Water | US EPA. (2023, March 28). US EPA. https://www.epa.gov/ground-water-and-drinking-water/3ts-reducing-lead-drinking-water
Triantafyllidou, S., Burkhardt, J. B., Tully, J., Cahalan, K., DeSantis, M. K., Lytle, D. A., & Schock, M. R. (2021). Variability and sampling of lead (Pb) in drinking water: Assessing potential human exposure depends on the sampling protocol. Environment International, 146, 106259. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.envint.2020.106259
Contributors, D. C. a. a. W. O. (2021, February 12). The Hill. The Hill. https://thehill.com/opinion/energy-environment/538589-epas-plan-to-test-for-lead-in-schools-will-do-more-harm-than-good/