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PS 51 Cancer Scare Ignites Calls For Accountability

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After the Department of Education announced that PS 51 in the Bronx is home to unsafe levels of a cancer-causing chemical, Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott said he would hold himself accountable, though he doesn't plan on explaining how the situation happened to begin with. NY1’s Lindsey Christ filed the following report.

Parents, teachers and students who have gone to PS 51 in the Bronx have reason to be worried.

Two decades after the school opened on leased land at a former industrial site, the city finally ran tests on the property in January and found unsafe levels of a cancer-causing chemical.

“We're all worried,” one parent said at a meeting Thursday night.

Parents came to the meeting with city officials looking for answers, but there aren't many yet.

“There are a lot of things that are unclear at this point,” said Dr. Nathan Graber, a Department of Health pediatrician.

A couple of things that remain unclear, including whether anyone at PS 51 has been harmed and who’s ultimately responsible.

Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott said he takes "full ownership" but explains that means he'll answer questions going forward, not looking back.

“It's not a question of who dropped the ball, the question is what do we do for the parents and children moving forward,” said Walcott.

But balls were dropped. Five years ago, lawmakers called for the Department of Education to treat leased land the same way it did city-owned property by testing the land for toxins and making that process public. Walcott, deputy mayor at the time, said they already did.

“Whether it's a lease site or a purchase site, we follow the same environmental plan in making sure that a school is safe,” said Walcott back in 2007.

Starting in 2003, the city did start doing environmental tests before signing new leases, but the process is only public when the school is on city-owned land. For years, the city has resisted more oversight over leased lots and calls to go back and test sites like PS 51.

“Chancellor Walcott talks a lot about transparency and accountability, and my question to the DOE is, why, then, have you been fighting a bill that requires just that?” said Dawn Philip of New York Layers for the Public Interest.

Back in 2007, the former deputy mayor had the same response he has now.

“One of the things we want to avoid is making sure we don't put in place a process that would delay the leasing of a site,” said Walcott.

The policy meant PS 51 was only tested when the lease came up for renewal. That's when Walcott admits the city messed up by waiting six months to tell anyone at the school that the tests found dangerous toxins.

Now, the chancellor and a spokesperson say they won't reveal who knew what when and why they didn't release results for six months. They say testing protocol will change but won't say what the new protocol will be or what the old one was.

“The ultimate accountability is having me here and holding me accountable, as well as me holding my staff accountable,” Walcott told parents.

It’s still unclear if there will be any public accountability — or accounting for — what happened at PS 51.

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