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Press Release

AG Shapiro Charges Former Scranton SD Superintendent, 2 Others with Endangering Welfare of Children

September 30, 2020 | Topic: Criminal

Kirijan, Brazil, Slack hid the truth from the public, exposing school children to dangerous levels of lead and asbestos

SCRANTON—Attorney General Josh Shapiro today announced that the 44th Investigating Grand Jury has recommended criminal charges against the former superintendent, retired chief operating officer and the current head of maintenance of the Scranton School District for failing to protect their students from lead and asbestos exposure.

The Grand Jury’s recommendation for charging the defendants, who had a legal duty to care for students, with endangering the welfare of children and recklessly endangering another person followed a joint investigation with the Office of Attorney General and the Pennsylvania State Police.

“The subjects of this investigation had a legal duty to care for students, were repeatedly advised by experts of dangerous levels of lead in drinking water, and they did nothing to fix it,” Attorney General Shapiro said today at a press conference in the district administration building. “The willful coverup of the lead and asbestos problems throughout the Scranton School District during the former superintendent’s and chief operating officer’s time in leadership was, as the grand jury decided, criminal.”

The Grand Jury learned that, between 2016 and 2019, former Scranton Superintendent Alexis Hazzouri Kirijan and former Director of Operations Jeff Brazil were repeatedly warned about dangerous concentrations of lead in the water and asbestos found in the walls of Scranton schools. Current Maintenance Supervisor Joseph Slack was directed to turn off affected water sources but failed to follow through.

Instead of taking steps to resolve the problem and protect Scranton’s students, the administration held a press conference to falsely claim that the sources of water with high lead concentrations had been fixed. They also never alerted the public of the presence of asbestos in the schools.

“Parents trust their children will be safe inside their schools and the people responsible for those facilities have their best interests at heart,” said Lieutenant Colonel Scott Price, deputy commissioner of operations for the Pennsylvania State Police. “The charges announced today are a step toward rebuilding that trust. We are grateful to everyone who came forward to aid in the investigation, and to all the teachers and administrators in Scranton who are working to create a safe space for children to learn.”

Initial lead testing in 2016 happened after a local media inquiry. This test found at least 22 water fountains and sinks that either met or tested above the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s threshold for emergency remediation. The testing also confirmed that the water entering school district buildings from the Scranton Water Department contained no discernible levels of lead, meaning that the lead was in building pipes.

In 2018, follow-up testing that was now required by a new state law revealed that 28 water fountains and sinks throughout the district had met or exceeded the EPA trigger for emergency remediation. And, also concerning, almost half of the district’s 300 water fountains and sinks showed measurable concentrations of lead.

Kirijan promised she would inform the school board of the 2018 test results, but the Grand Jury said she never shared the information. Slack similarly promised he would restrict access to water fountains and sinks that had been deemed as critically unsafe to students and faculty. But the Grand Jury learned he, too, failed to follow through on his promise to keep Scranton students safe. The 28 fountains and sinks remained operational until the new administration was alerted to the problems in 2020.

“No principal was ever told there were lead problems in their schools,” Shapiro said. “And, every principal in the district told our investigators that none of their school’s fountains or sinks were ever turned off after the 2018 report detailing the number of water sources containing dangerous levels of lead.”

The federal Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act requires school districts to inspect school buildings for asbestos-containing materials, prepare asbestos management plans, and perform asbestos response actions to prevent or reduce asbestos hazards.

2016 asbestos testing in the Scranton School District identified 74 locations that were near the highest levels of danger and required urgent action for remediation — only 10 percent of which were ever fixed. 2019 testing showed that 15 of the 74 areas got worse, including one site that escalated to the highest danger warning on the asbestos scale, while 42 other areas did not change and were still unsafe.

“In other words, these individuals broke the law, and the health of students, faculty and staff remained in jeopardy for more than three years,” Shapiro said.

Investigators told the Grand Jury they were unable to find any mention of asbestos in Kirijan’s emails from 2016 through 2019.

Defendants are being charged a count for each school affected, and as follows:

Kirijan

Charges Related to Lead in Drinking Water:

  • Endangering Welfare of Children (F1) – 5 Counts
  • Endangering Welfare of Children (F2 – 10 Counts
  • Recklessly Endangering Another Person (M2) – 10 Counts

Charges Related to Asbestos:

  • Endangering Welfare of Children (F1) – 9 Counts
  • Endangering Welfare of Children (F2 – 14 Counts
  • Recklessly Endangering Another Person (M2) – 14 Counts

Brazil

Charges Related to Lead in Drinking Water:

  • Endangering Welfare of Children (F1) – 5 Counts
  • Endangering Welfare of Children (F2 – 10 Counts
  • Recklessly Endangering Another Person (M2) – 10 Counts

Charges Related to Asbestos:

  • Endangering Welfare of Children (F1) – 9 Counts
  • Endangering Welfare of Children (F2 – 14 Counts
  • Recklessly Endangering Another Person (M2) – 14 Counts

Slack

Charges Related to Lead in Drinking Water:

  • Endangering Welfare of Children (F1) – 3 Counts
  • Endangering Welfare of Children (F2 – 8 Counts
  • Recklessly Endangering Another Person (M2) – 8 Counts

Each Felony 1 charge carries maximum penalties of 20 years and a $25,000 fine, Felony2 charges carry maximum penalties of 10 years and $25,000 fine, and the misdemeanor counts carry up to 2 years in prison and $5,000 fine.

Senior Deputy Attorneys General Erik Olsen and Cari Mahler are prosecuting this case. All charges discussed are accusations. The defendants are presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty.

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