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Case Study: Stoughton Public Schools, Stoughton, Massachusetts


District Profile

The Stoughton School District consists of 8 schools:

with approximately 4,000-4,200 students.

Its oldest school was built in 1923 and the newest in 1970.

Introduction

Children may be exposed to elevated levels of lead in drinking water from the plumbing materials in their schools and child care centers. Exposure to lead can cause serious health problems in students and may inhibit physical and mental development. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has developed the comprehensive 3Ts Guidelines for Reducing Lead in Drinking Water in Schools. The 3Ts involve:

Laws require local water providers to test and mitigate for lead, but once the water enters a school’s plumbing system it can become contaminated from sediment, solder, piping, faucets, valves, meters, and other components containing brass or lead within the school’s facilities. It is vital that schools implement a water testing program to determine if there is any lead in their water, establish a program to reduce the lead if there is any, and ensure testing is continued in the future. One school district that has taken steps to initiate a testing plan is Stoughton Public Schools of Massachusetts.


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Problem Identification

In 2003 the Superintendent of Stoughton School District received a postcard from the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) encouraging the district to initiate water sampling and lead testing programs. This postcard was a product of the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection’s outreach campaign to increase awareness about lead in schools’ water. The Superintendent relayed this information to the school district’s Facilities Manager, Mr. Joel Harding. They agreed to initiate a comprehensive lead testing, and a subsequent mitigation program to minimize exposure and ensure the health of staff and students.


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Testing Program Initiation

As Mr. Harding began planning for the district’s new water testing program he was unsure of where, what, and how to test for lead. With so many unanswered questions, he started by gathering general information related to water testing in schools and designed his initial testing plan with enough flexibility to accommodate trial and error.

It took approximately two years for the testing program to mature and become efficient. Early on Mr. Harding made contacts with state and local officials, local utilities, and experts for field training and testing guidance. He first went straight to the source of the postcard, the Mass DEP, for help planning a testing and remediation program. The school district already worked with the local drinking water utility on various issues, so he used this established connection to support his water testing program. These fruitful partnerships have matured as the state and local drinking water utility continue to provide information and technical support to sustain the lead testing program in Stoughton Public Schools.


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Current Practices and Policies

The school district used experience gained during the first years to create an enduring and effective testing program. The facilities branch continues to conduct the program, which involves annual water testing in all of the schools in the district over one weekend. Staff sample water from the fountains and faucets used by students and teachers, and determine the number of samples taken on a per student basis.

If elevated levels of lead in the water are found in any of the facilities, the schools take remediation steps. These steps may include posting warning signs, telling custodians to flush affected outlets, replacing the fountains, removing excess water from fountains, running plastic pipe to water fountains from water mains, adding electronic valves to automatically flush water, and specifying lead-free solder for all new construction. A flexible testing and remediation program allowed school officials to adapt their plans in response to changes that were made over time to the schools internal water distribution systems and as plumbing materials were upgraded.

An integral part of Stoughton’s testing program was making the effort to establish a working rapport with students, parents, school officials, and other stakeholders through consistent communication and transparency. After every testing session the district makes sure to communicate to all stakeholders that testing has been done, what the results were, if any remediation steps were taken, and recommending that people check their own homes for lead. The facilities branch is easily accessible; if anyone has questions they are welcome to contact Mr. Harding to get more information about the testing. The testing program has not received any negative responses from stakeholders, which is mainly due to these communication procedures. “Parents will be unhappy,” explained Mr. Harding, “if they hear that testing is going on but don’t know why it is taking place or the results of the tests; but keeping them well informed and abreast of the testing program prevents a public outcry and a risky public relations situation from arising.” He also stressed the importance of keeping the superintendent, school staff, faculty, town engineers, the Public Works Department and local health officials aware of the plan so that they would also be able to respond to inquiries and concerns from the public.


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Lessons Learned

When Stoughton Schools first started their lead testing program they found limited information on initiating and sustaining a lead testing and mitigation program (EPA had not yet developed the 3Ts guidance documents). Mr. Harding noted that “the EPA website was very helpful while establishing the testing program; however, it would have been beneficial to have the 3Ts information on hand. The blueprints and guidance that the 3Ts materials currently provide are extremely helpful and can help a district save a lot of time and energy as they set up a new testing program.”

Mr. Harding believes that if he could start the process over, he would take fewer samples. He realized that he had “over-tested” in the beginning. He had to test some sites multiple times in order to get more trustworthy results. These tests were part of the initial trial and error, but now the district has fine-tuned their process to use time and resources more efficiently.

For new programs, Mr. Harding stresses the value of letting parents and other stakeholders know that the reason they are testing is a preemptive, precautionary tactic not because there is a lead problem. This step helps ease the minds of parents and avoids a public relations problem for anyone trying to incorporate a lead testing plan in their district.


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Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection Award

In May 2007, Stoughton Schools was a recipient of the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection STAR-L Award (Systems Taking Action to Reduce Lead Award). The award is based upon three main criteria similar to the 3Ts:

  1. Schools that have active testing programs and submitted documents to verify it.
  2. Schools that coordinate on the local level with utility providers and local leaders and public health officials
  3. Schools that have an outreach program to give parents and students information.

The Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection gives the STAR-L Award to both the school and the local drinking water utility to recognize the excellent work they have done together to establish this testing program, inform the public, and protect the health of the school’s occupants.


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