The Butler Area School District put Summit Elementary School students at serious risk by concealing for months that its water supply contained dangerous amounts of lead, according to a federal lawsuit filed Tuesday.
The lawsuit comes two days after Superintendent Dale Lumley, who also is named as a defendant, resigned in the aftermath of the scandal.
On Jan. 20, the school district announced in a letter to parents that students and staff at the elementary school had been told not to drink the water from a well on the property because it had been contaminated with lead. But lawyers suing the district contend the administration knew of lead problems in August and conspired to stay silent.
Further testing last week found E. coli bacteria in the well that supplies the school, prompting the building to be closed indefinitely. Students at Summit temporarily are attending classes in the shuttered Broad Street School until the water issues are resolved.
The lawsuit, filed as a class-action complaint on behalf of all of the students, alleges the district and Lumley took no action to correct the water issue and didn’t inform families. Their lack of action created “a school full of poisonous drinking water,” the lawsuit contends.
School testing from Aug. 15 indicated lead levels were “200-300% higher than acceptable and safe standards,” according to the lawsuit.
School district Solicitor Thomas W. King III and Lumley’s attorney, Colleen Johnston, declined comment.
The lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court by attorneys Douglas Olcott of New Castle and Brendan Lupetin, whose firm of Meyers, Evans, Lupetin & Unatin is in Pittsburgh.
Lupetin explained that if a judge determines the complaint meets class certification standards, then all affected students and their families will become part of the suit unless they choose to opt out. Currently, the plaintiff is a girl and her mother, Jennifer Tait, a Butler resident.
“The defendants made a conscious and intentional decision to neither warn the students of this dangerous condition nor take any appropriate steps to fix the dangerous condition,” the attorneys wrote in the lawsuit. “The defendants knew that lead can cause serious health problems, if too much enters the body from drinking contaminated water.”
Lead is a neurotoxin that can impair child brain development and cause kidney damage, mood disorders, weight loss and other ailments.
“It’s basically a wait-and-see for these kids to determine whether they have been harmed,” Lupetin told the Tribune-Review. “We know that symptoms can manifest later in the students’ lives. We know they were drinking poisonous water for five months.”
Lupetin said the school district should offer free lead testing to all of the students immediately.
“Admit the mistake, explain potential consequences and try to make it right by offering serial monitoring of the students’ lead levels,” he said.
Last week, at King’s request, Butler County District Attorney Richard Goldinger said he asked state police to open a criminal investigation into the alleged cover-up.
On its website, the school district said Dr. William Pettigrew will serve as acting superintendent until a new superintendent is chosen. Pettigrew declined comment Tuesday.
Missie Carbin of Summit Township has two children, ages 6 and 8, at the school.
“I entirely believe that there was a cover-up,” she said after learning about the lawsuit.
She said she did not intend to join the class-action effort but sympathizes with those who do.
“I understand that Jennifer is just trying to protect her child,” Carbin said of Tait. “But I feel like suing the district is taking money out of taxpayer pockets and ultimately away from dollars that should be going toward our children’s education and fixing the water at our school.”
School board member Bill Halle said he was concerned after learning about the lead tests during a meeting in September. He said he had been reassured the problems had been rectified after the district consulted with the Department of Environmental Protection.
“I’m heartsick,” he said. “The thought that our children as well our staff as well as a community was put at risk, I’m just heartsick.”
Halle said he is not surprised by the lawsuit.
“The fact that the superintendent did not look into it deeper is very troubling,” he said. “I will do all I can to hold those accountable for their actions.”
Ben Schmitt is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7991 or firstname.lastname@example.org.