Amid water woes, Detroit students use Count Day to protest

Wednesday, October 3 is a big day for schools in Michigan. It's the annual fall Count Day, the day that determines the vast majority of a district's funding. But on this day, a handful of Detroit students used it as an opportunity to protest the water woes currently plaguing their schools.

About a week before the first day of school, authorities with the Detroit Public Schools Community District announced they had shut off the drinking water at all district schools because some testing they had done showed elevated levels of lead and/or copper. They said they had tested the drinking water at 24 schools, and 16 came back with the unfavorable results. 

Then, a few weeks later on September 19, district officials came back with more results -- 57 of the 86 schools they'd tested showed high levels of lead and/or copper. Some schools' results are still pending, but you can see a chart of which schools are affected here.

In the meantime, the schools have supplies of bottled water and water coolers on hand, and next week on October 9 the school board is voting on using hydration stations at the schools -- a move that reportedly would cost $2 million. The hydration stations would cool water and remove copper, lead and other contaminants, but would be only a Band-Aid on a much bigger problem, something that's not sitting right with some of the students.

"When I realized I couldn't stay quiet anymore, it grew and blossomed into this," says Brooke Solomon, a junior at Cass Tech High School. She's talking about a now-formed group called Detroit Area Youth Uniting Michigan, the one that spearheaded the protest on Count Day. Brooke and other students came to Cass Corridor Commons instead of class. While their Count Day protest didn't see an extraordinary amounts of kids, they hope their message will still be heard. 

"We are protesting Detroit city officials and Detroit school officials who have failed to protect students from harmful water. They have not given us answers, no one's being held accountable and we just want what's best for ourselves and our peers," Solomon says. 

"Any other day it would be a just a group of kids not going to school and it wouldn't matter as much," says Rejoyce Douglas, a fellow protester. But the group chose the day their absence would be noticed the most.

It is important to note, if a student is absent on Count Day it doesn't automatically mean the school misses out on that funding. If a student misses school on Count Day, they can still be counted if they had an excused absence and they're back in school within the next 30 days, or if they had an unexcused absence and they're back in school within 10 days. Count Day funding is also taken from a blend of the fall count day and the spring count day, which is the second Wednesday in February. Ninety percent of the state funding, though, does come from the count day in October.

The students spent their time out of class Wednesday doing group activities and coming up with a list of demands, of sorts. They want to see city-wide testing for lead and copper, some sort of an affordability plan to look at ways to fix the infrastructure, as well as resources to counter any lead-induced behavior issues.

"The most basic right, water, it's really frustrating seeing other cities like Flint go through something similar. I'm terrified that we could be headed down the same path," Douglas says.

"Overall, we want a shift in attitude when it comes to Detroit students and our problems," Solomon adds. "Usually we're overlooked and we really want to bring attention to ourselves."

Do we count? That's the question they really wanted answered today with their protest.