Letter to the editor: The Federal Court is Aware of the Environmental Concerns at Fifth Ward Elementary. The Board Should Address This Immediately.

Published 12:10 am Wednesday, August 23, 2023

When parents send their kids off to school, we often think that they do so with the peace of mind that their children have been left in the care of a safe, nurturing, and healthy environment in which they can learn. This expectation from parents in St. John the Baptist Parish has however, faced and run up against a disturbing reality for many families in our community who send their children to Fifth Ward Elementary.

For several years, community members, who expect our children to be filled with knowledge when we send them to school, not toxic air, have called on the school board to relocate the students of Fifth Ward Elementary to a facility located farther away from the Denka plant and that is environmentally safe. While our school district has faced challenges going back a generation, it’s only recently that we have been presented with an opportunity to attempt to address directly the environmental shortcomings with Fifth Ward Elementary.

This opportunity, while promising, comes after a series of escalatory, urgent, but ultimately unmet efforts to get the school board to create a plan to relocate Fifth Ward Elementary’s students: At a board meeting on April 29, 2021 the superintendent requested approval to close Fifth Ward Elementary. Then in October 2022, after Concerned Citizens of St. John filed a complaint with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the federal government issued a letter to the state finding that children attending Fifth Ward Elementary were exposed to an increased lifetime risk of cancer, and recommending the temporary and permanent relocation of the school. Then in February 2023, the federal government filed a lawsuit against the Denka plant concerning its emissions of chloroprene (a chemical that has been determined to be a toxic air pollutant), in which the U.S. Department of Justice observed that children attending Fifth Ward Elementary are “likely to be especially susceptible to the cancer risks posed by chloroprene.”

Most recently, in a hearing last month in the ongoing St. John the Baptist Parish school desegregation case, the Legal Defense Fund (LDF) notified the federal court of the environmental concerns raised by community members and state and federal officials regarding Fifth Ward Elementary School, and the school board’s repeated failure to take action to relocate its students  despite its awareness of these concerns. This latest effort by LDF builds upon several years of efforts undertaken by community members, advocates like the Concerned Citizens of St. John, and environmental groups who have organized presentations, protests and lawsuits to raise awareness about the environmental and health conditions at Fifth Ward Elementary School due to its close proximity to the Denka plant. We have made school board members aware that children attending Fifth Ward Elementary have suffered from headaches, nosebleeds, and respiratory issues.

And yet to date, the school board has not voted on relocating the students of Fifth Ward Elementary, and the school remains open.

In an interview earlier this year, retired school board member Patrick Sanders admitted that the board has failed to protect the children of Fifth Ward Elementary. The only explanation Mr. Sanders was able to offer for this failure was that he was only one vote on the school board, suggesting that other board members may not have appreciated the environmental concerns that have been raised by so many of us for so long.

Last month’s federal court hearing provides the school board with the opportunity to finally do right by the children of Fifth Ward Elementary. In his order, the judge expressed that the safety of the children of Fifth Ward Elementary should be a paramount concern, and questioned why the school board could not come up with an interim solution to closing the school prior to the start of the 2024-2025 school year. The judge then ordered that the school board, LDF, and the Department of Justice appear before the court for a follow-up conference on August 30 with the hope that the parties will submit a joint interim proposal to relocate the students, faculty, and staff at Fifth Ward Elementary prior to then. However, the only way that can happen is if the school board takes a vote on temporarily relocating Fifth Ward Elementary’s students as soon as possible.

The next school board meeting is scheduled for August 24. For the sake of the children at Fifth Ward Elementary, we urge the school board to take the necessary vote concerning the school at this Thursday’s meeting.


Citizen Jean, advocate for all children

Mary Hampton, member of Concerned Citizens of St. John, resident of the Fifth Ward community, and grandparent of children attending Fifth Ward Elementary

Erica Lumar, community advocate