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The issue of contamination at the Roberto Clemente Learning Academy in southwest Detroit is never going to be fully laid to rest as long as classrooms remain on the site of what used to be the New Beard School. With arsenic, lead, PCBs and lots of other nasty stuff in the ground there, vigilance will be the watchword for years to come.

Nonetheless, environmentalists and activists are hailing an agreement with Detroit Public Schools formalized last week in the courtroom of federal Judge Denise Page Hood. The settlement provides parents guaranteed access to information about the site, and prompt legal recourse if a barrier installed to contain the contamination isn’t properly maintained, or if a schedule of testing is not adhered to.

Billie Hickey, who works for the nonprofit group Southwest Detroit Environmental Vision, notes that “the terms of this settlement will set a precedent for ensuring the health and safety for all children,” adding that the agreement is especially important in neighborhoods populated by minority and low-income residents.

In 2001, attorneys for the National Lawyers Guild/Sugar Law Center and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund initially filed suit on behalf of parents claiming Detroit Public Schools had violated their children’s rights under Title VI federal regulations. They prohibit “federally funded agencies from engaging in conduct which has a disparate impact on racial and ethnic minorities,” Hickey says. Basic constitutional protections were also an issue in the case.

“As a result of this settlement, any child who will ever attend this school is much safer than they would have been,” says Julie Hurwitz, executive director of the Guild Law Center.

“It’s a tremendous victory for everybody,” Hurwitz says. “It’s going to make a huge difference in the ability to make sure the property stays safe, not just for the children going there now, but for every child down the road as long as there is a school at that site. You have to give DPS credit for its willingness to get this thing resolved.”

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