2018 The Al Neuharth Innovation in Investigative Journalism Award, Large Newsroom finalist

Toxic City: Sick Schools


About the Project

For the past two years, our ongoing investigative series, “Toxic City,” has told of the city’s struggles, and failures, to protect Philadelphia’s children from environmental harm. This entry consists of three recent installments that were part of the May “Sick Schools” package, our most innovative and ambitious effort in the series to date.

Using internal maintenance logs and building records, interviews with 120 teachers, parents, students, and experts, and independent scientific testing, reporters identified more than 9,000 environmental problems since September 2015: mold, deteriorated asbestos, and acres of flaking and peeling lead that put children at risk. Our investigation also found that district staffers often took months or years to fix the problems. Or, even more shocking, when they did try to correct conditions, they sometimes made the problems worse.

Our reporters deployed two innovative, albeit time-consuming, approaches to inform the Philadelphia community about environmental perils at the city’s 214 district schools. To independently assess the conditions inside the schools, reporters embarked on an ambitious sensor journalism project in which they found staffers at 19 elementary schools who were willing to test for toxic conditions inside the buildings. Finding the willing insiders, gaining their trust, and training them to collect dust wipes and other samples took months of delicate sourcing. The newspapers spent nearly $9,000 on scientific testing over seven months.

To provide parents with access to information on the physical state of more than 200 district-run schools, we created School Checkup: the culmination of months of research and analysis of more than 250,000 room-by-room environmental records that detail four building conditions known to impact a child’s health: rampant mold, deteriorated asbestos, flaking and peeling lead paint, and drinking water containing high levels of lead.

Among the toughest challenges was getting parents, on the record, to share intimate details of the injuries to their children. By layering these on-the-record accounts on top of compelling video and photos and a bedrock of sensor journalism, reporters Wendy Ruderman, Barbara Laker and Dylan Purcell created heartbreaking, steel-spined stories. With data as well as names, faces and medical details of injured children, the reporters brought this distressing story to life in a way that infuriated a community and has begun to move it to act.