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School rule

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The school is open. Kids are in class. And a federal judge finally issues a landmark ruling.

In a written opinion issued last month, U.S. District Court Judge Denise Page Hood said that the parents suing Detroit Public Schools over the construction of an elementary school on a contaminated industrial waste site would be allowed to have their day in court.

The parents will have the chance to prove at trial whether their kids may be harmed by attending Roberto Clemente Learning Academy (formerly Beard Elementary School).

About three years ago, the Detroit Public Schools constructed a new elementary school on the city’s southwest side in a predominately Mexican- and African-American neighborhood. Parents were outraged when they later learned that the site was contaminated with arsenic, PCBs and other toxins. Some sued the district in 2001, arguing that the minority children’s civil rights were violated by possibly exposing them to environmental contamination.

Attorney Julie Hurwitz says that the ruling is significant for an “environmental justice” case.

“Other cases of this kind have not been permitted to go forward or have been reversed on appeal,” says Hurwitz, executive director of the Maurice and Jane Sugar Law Center for Economic and Social Justice, which represents the plaintiffs along with the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

Public schools are built on contaminated sites in many communities of color nationwide, but this would not happen in non-minority communities, says Hurwitz.

The Detroit Public Schools did not return calls by press time Monday.

About 1,000 students attend the school, which opened in 2001. Layers of contaminated soil were removed from the site and a concrete cap was constructed to prevent the hazardous material from reaching the surface. The district has been monitoring the site since, says Hurwitz.

The plaintiffs want to ensure that parents of future students know that the site is contaminated and that the cap is maintained.

“That means … if there is ever a breach of integrity of structure, that red flags, bells and whistles go off immediately,” says Hurwitz.

A trial date has not been scheduled.

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