Water

South Philadelphia high school plagued by brown water and overflowing toilets

The problems started on Wednesday, when most bathrooms at South Philadelphia High School, home to more than 600 students, lacked running water or fully functional bathrooms for most of the day. Some staff reported that sewage seemed to overflow from the bathroom.

Eventually, the water recovered, but some of the school’s fountains and sinks produced dark brown water on Thursday, and some bathrooms remained unusable, teachers said.

The situation, they said, angered students and staff, who over two days appealed to district and city officials with little response.

School officials said the initial problem was caused by the Philadelphia Department of Water’s work affecting water pressure in the area, and said the discoloration was caused by the buildup of air in the building’s plumbing. City water officials inspected the school and deemed it “fully operational,” they said.

Spokesperson Monica Lewis said the decision was made Wednesday to keep students at the school because some bathrooms on the ground floor were still working. The school has six floors.

“There is no danger of people using unsafe water at any time,” Lewis said, adding that as far as she knows, there is no sewage — only Brown water produced by cavitation.

But many staff and advocates questioned why hundreds of students were locked up for hours on Wednesday in buildings without adequate bathrooms, and said the information they received was constantly changing and often conflicting. They said some students were denied access to the restroom, with lunches on Wednesdays without water and with brown water on Thursdays.

“When I walked into a bathroom, I saw the toilet was overflowing,” one teacher said. The teacher asked that their names be withheld to avoid reprisals. “I saw something overflowing in the toilet. I saw the sink overflowing. There was some toilet paper and other stuff floating around.”

Another teacher who requested anonymity for fear of punishment District officials called the situation “unsafe.”

“Let’s put it this way: This is never going to happen in an all-girls high school, central or suburban,” the teacher said. “We were beaten. It was especially frustrating. Most of the time, we just went with the flow. But it was too much.”

Teachers said the school’s cooking class was in preparation for a special event and was closed on Wednesday due to water conditions.

Shelley Lipscomb, a school union representative and South Philadelphia teacher, asked for officials to intervene in an email sent Wednesday to building administrators and obtained by The Inquirer.

“For almost four hours, hundreds of students had a single working bathroom; staff were also limited to one bathroom. As you pointed out in your previous email, the water going to those ‘working’ bathrooms did not Not clean. The food was prepared in a kitchen without hot water and the water also contained ‘particulates’. That food was given to students. None of these conditions were hygienic or acceptable. However some thought it was acceptable, ” Lipscomb wrote.

“For hours, the health and safety of staff and students has been blatantly disregarded. This is totally unacceptable and absolutely avoidable,” she said.

On Thursday afternoon, school administrators sent a note to staff saying the water system was back up and running.

But then, construction engineers in South Philadelphia said otherwise.

“This may be a bit premature,” the building engineer wrote. “We currently have plumbers in the building working on an issue. Thank you for your patience as we all work on these issues.”

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