Portland Schools Prioritized Panic Prevention Over Labeling Lead-Tainted Sinks

by | August 9, 2016

By Bethany Barnes

Portland Public Schools officials knew water from district's sinks was unsafe for drinking, but declined to place explicit warnings on the fixtures as early as 2012 because they worried people might panic.

Emails released Monday shed light on how the district maintained a policy against letting students and staff drink from sinks but took pains to down play those concerns in communications with the public.

The move sparked an internal controversy years before recent revelations about lead in drinking water plunged the district into ongoing turmoil.

In 2012, the district labeled sinks at Rigler Elementary School after a parent complained about not knowing sinks were off-limits for drinking. The complaint first turned up in a report by local law firm Stoll Berne, which the district paid to investigate its recent bungled lead testing.

Erin Barnett, a district communications employee at the time, planned to put up the stickers district-wide, before top facilities officials shut her down.

The emails released Monday show officials stopped the stickers after failing to find a warning that wouldn't be too alarming.

A copy of the proposed stickers, included in the emails, said simply this: "Do not drink water from this sink. Please use the drinking fountain." The stickers showed an image of a faucet with a cancel sign over it.

Originally, the cancel sign was red. But officials worried the color red would be too alarming and had the stickers redone using black.

When the color change still failed to soften concerns, the district decided it wouldn't post any warnings on sinks that might be lead-laced. Instead the district quietly revised a statement about the policy on its website.

"The sticker idea came from several sources -- we pursued it at Rigler but it made the Principal and some staff nervous, even after revising the red-colored image and writing to regular text," wrote Heidi Dempster-Johnson, executive assistant to the district's chief operating officer, Tony Magliano. "Consequently, we decided not to use stickers throughout the district."

Magliano is on paid administrative leave because of the current lead scandal.

Barnett told Stoll Berne she was frustrated about what happened with the stickers but felt it wasn't "her place" to push back.

Barnett declined to comment for this article.

The Oregonian/OregonLive's Brad Schmidt contributed to this report.

(c)2016 The Oregonian (Portland, Ore.)