- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 10, 2005

“It’s been a wild two weeks,” says Frazier O’Leary, a teacher and baseball coach at Cardozo High School. But, like his displaced students, he is “adjusting.”

Mr. O’Leary’s English classes are taught on the first floor of Cardozo, only a few feet from where the initial mercury spill was discovered Feb. 23 at the Northwest school. One student, who is eight months pregnant, informed him about “silvery stuff” on the floor next to the nearby water fountain just before he was ordered to keep his students in the room.

“This freaked me out; my whole perspective changed because what if she had gotten infected and that affected her baby?” he asked, as if lecturing his class. “Then, it wouldn’t be just a prank; it wouldn’t be fun anymore just to get out of school for a couple of days.”

Three students have been arrested and charged with spilling the substance, which one of them said he found in a science laboratory, although all mercury was supposed to have been removed from all D.C. schools after a spill at Ballou High School in 2003.

Since that “incredibly disruptive” day when Cardozo’s students, faculty and administrators were forced to wait for hours as they were tested for mercury contamination, Mr. O’Leary said, “We’ve been making the best of a bad situation.” This has not been easy since they have missed days of school and been shuffled clear across town to the University of the District of Columbia (UDC) while the building is inspected and cleaned.

Pathetically, there’s plenty of blame to pass around. What a fine example of adult accountability that D.C. school, fire and health officials, along with those from the Environmental Protection Agency, are setting for impressionable students with their continued who-struck-whom-first finger-pointing.

While grown-ups are goofing up, the teachers, students and athletes are left wondering when they’ll get back.

“The students are dealing with the situation really well. At first, they took it like getting a couple of days off like a snow day, but I think they are really ready to go home to Cardozo,” Mr. O’Leary said yesterday after his makeshift, three-hour advanced-placement English class.

“I hate days off, and the kids aren’t enjoying it, either; they want to be educated.”

Aha, there’s the back story. Somehow, there is a silver lining amid this mercury mess.

“They want to be students,” Mr. O’Leary said. “I think [this disruption] has made our students generally appreciate what education means to them, and they don’t like it being taken away.” Not only taken away by the students who spilled the mercury, and not by the adults, who can’t seem to clean it up, he added.

Countless Cardozo students, some in Mr. O’Leary’s 10th-grade homeroom, have voiced their desire to be in school and their displeasure about delays in getting them back in the classrooms where they belong. One student told a TV reporter, “I’d rather be in school than at home.” These sentiments are most encouraging coming from an inner-city student body that has experienced more than its share of social ills, ethnic tensions and crime.

Little notice has been given to the laudable way in which Cardozo’s students are handling this mercury mishap.

One D.C. health official — who suggested that closing the school after the second droplets were discovered in the basement might be “overkill” — said, “I was really impressed with the student body.”

“They were well-controlled, well-behaved the whole time, which reflects a connection with the principal and staff,” the health official said after the testing session that went well into the first night.

As for their temporary home, Mr. O’Leary said, many Cardozo students, particularly those from other areas of the city, had never been to UDC.

“A lot of people were shocked by the number of kids who showed up” at UDC on Tuesday and Wednesday, Mr. O’Leary said. He estimated that 500 students of the 820 enrolled at the school attended the substitute sessions this week. “I’ve seen students at UDC that I haven’t seen regularly in class at Cardozo … students who you wouldn’t expect to catch a subway or buses and come all the way across town.”

Let’s hope that taking courses, albeit truncated, on a college campus does give Cardozo students an extra incentive to further their education.

Mr. O’Leary, who is, after all, a baseball coach, is more than happy to have a gym in which to practice temporarily. Cardozo doesn’t have the practice space, equipment, uniforms or its own field even on a normal day.

There is no funding for athletic activities in D.C. schools, just money to refurbish and build baseball stadiums for a professional team. Mr. O’Leary, like other coaches in town, spends a lot of his spare time trolling for dollars.

In fact, he hopes there will be checks in the sequestered mail at Cardozo to help his 16-player team, which includes a couple of girls this season, travel to an invitational tournament in the Virgin Islands from March 27 through April 1.

Last year, the team was used as a prop during the fanfare to announce the return of Major League Baseball to the city. This year, Mr. O’Leary still is trying to raise $20,000. He has received help from the mayor’s constituent services office to apply for grants. He also has received some private donations and money from the school system. He is awaiting a $5,000 grant from the DC Sports and Entertainment Commission, which attempts to move heaven and earth to sell Major League Baseball to unsupportive city taxpayers and businesses.

Can we create a silver lining in this mercury mess specifically for Mr. O’Leary and his baseball team, too? To contribute, send donations in care of Mr. O’Leary to Cardozo Baseball, 1200 Clifton St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20009.

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