When Whittier Elementary’s radiator exploded back in October, it was the last straw for many parents, teachers, and staff, who gathered together last month to call for the Ward 4 school’s modernization.
They were lucky – the hallway was empty when the explosion occurred, but students, teachers, and staff at Whittier are still facing a constant struggle while trying to learn and work in unsafe conditions.
Angela Anderson, president of Whittier Elementary’s Parent Teacher Organization, said that a firefighter told her, “Listen, this will not stop happening. And you’re lucky someone wasn’t here because the pressure in these old steam systems, it’s so strong that it can sever a body part.”
Anderson said that the Department of General Services, which handles maintenance across DCPS, sends someone out to take a photo of the issue and then mark the service ticket as resolved even if it is not.
“Who is holding DGS accountable?” Anderson asked. “Who is coming behind them and doing that final check to see if it’s been done?”
DGS did not respond to email requests for comment.
In an email statement, D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson said, “Work orders are key to any maintenance program. If DGS can’t manage its work orders then its maintenance program is going to fail. DGS’ approach to maintenance is completely inefficient. The mismanagement of the work orders is fundamental to that problem. What we’re also seeing is that inadequate and poor maintenance is, in the end, costing the city millions of dollars.“
Loose and falling bricks along the exterior of the building, a leaking roof with clear water damage, faulty HVAC systems in cold classrooms, backed up sewage, and unusable bathrooms across the school’s entire third floor are just a handful of what teachers and parents say some of the hazards at Whittier, located at 6201 5th St NW.
Alicia Bolton, whose two children attend Whittier, detailed a host of hazardous conditions at the school, adding that those issues were “scratching the surface.”
Since the radiator incident, the most notable risk to school safety and public health has been a rat infestation, evidenced by droppings found scattered across school supplies and floors.
“We had a rodent issue,” said Bolton. “I think it’s been become more pronounced in the last few weeks, because I don’t know what city agencies [are] responsible for picking up the trash, but they haven’t done it in at least about three weeks or so.”
Bolton has both a third grader and a kindergartener at Whittier Elementary. Her daughter had told her one day that there had been a dead rat in the middle of her third-grade classroom, which her teacher had to dispose of before starting class.
“That is that is disgusting,” Bolton said. “It is atrocious, and the city should be ashamed of itself.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, humans can contract diseases, such as the hantavirus, by coming into contact with or “breathing in air contaminated with fresh mouse or rat urine, droppings, or nesting materials from an infected rodent.”
Bolton noted numerous delayed repairs and construction, including an elevator that is currently not working and causes “major concerns for safety,” as well as a “more blatant violation of the law with respect to students with disabilities who can’t get around.”
A student who recently required crutches had to be carried upstairs by a teacher, sometimes multiple times a day, to get to and from class, Bolton said.
Anderson said that parents are not just upset about building code violations or repairs, alone. “We are talking about violations that are illegal, illegal.”
The stench of backed up sewage, mold and mildew has made some classrooms unusable, leading teachers to use the lunchroom or other rooms to hold their classes, Bolton said.
“Those are the types of egregious issues that that we’ve been facing,” Bolton said.
Bolton and other members from the Whittier Parent Teacher Organization have reached out to Chancellor Lewis Ferebee of DCPS and said that the response has “just been pretty lackluster,” assuring parents that the school will be modernized in a few years.
Bolten said that schools like Whittier are “made up primarily of working-class families” and feels that schools attended by more affluent families would not be left in such a state of disrepair.
“And yet they expect us to believe that equity matters, and they care about our learners? I don’t think so. That’s not been proven to us.”
Bolton said that the system is “flawed, and it needs to be redone” and argued that the city’s PACE Act, which uses a particular methodology to prioritize modernization across schools in the district, is “ineffective”.
Local ANC commissioners like Jocelynn Johnson and Janeese Lewis George have been responsive to parents and teachers at Whittier, decrying the state of public schools in the district.
Johnson has been an outspoken advocate for modernizing D.C. public schools like Whittier Elementary and has been appalled by what she considers to be the apparent lack of concern by DCPS officials and the city government.
Did you know students and teachers with disabilities still can’t get around @WhittierECSTEM, which is a violation of the ADA and IDEA? @DCPS_Mods @DCPSChancellor @MayorBowser @VoteMendo @dcpublicschools are aware & should be ashamed. Modernize Whittier Now!#overdueandoverlooked pic.twitter.com/Wqr06TBKTx
— JGWhittierPTO (@JGWhittierPTO) November 4, 2022
“I started getting flooded with a lot of emails going to DCPS and to the mayor’s office, and after the parent would talk about the horrible things that they talked about – about not having any ramp to go and get into the building, you know, in 2022; bathrooms that haven’t been accessible along the floor; to ceiling leaking in the building and stuff like that,” Johnson said.
In an email sent to ANC Commissioner Erin Palmer regarding a proposed resolution “Calling for Urgent School Building Repairs at Whittier Elementary School and Legislative Changes to Ensure Timely School Modernizations,” Deputy Mayor for Education Paul Kihn wrote that he does “recognize that there is ongoing preventative maintenance work and building condition work that needs to be done.”
Kihn wrote that the “full modernization of Whittier Elementary is scheduled to begin in the 2024-2025 school year” and that it “is scheduled to be completed by school year 2027.”
“This timeline was determined by criteria in the PACE Act (another subject of your resolution). We will continue to look at this timeline and take into account the feedback we are receiving from the community.”
But Johnson does not find this response reassuring.
“That’s not acceptable. Are you kidding me?” Johnson said. “Somebody’s going to get sick, and I don’t want to see that happen.”