Parents at a K-8 school in South Portland are concerned about tear gas and other chemical contamination on a playground following regular weapons use by federal officers.
Cottonwood School of Civics and Science, a public charter school, has been subjected to clouds of tear gas since May of last year, as a result of law enforcement response to regular protests at a nearby U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement facility.
Since the spring of 2020, racial justice protests in Portland have included regular stops at the immigration facility and calls from protesters to end the inhumane detention of undocumented immigrants.
Some nights, there have been just a handful of protestors. On others, the crowd has included several hundred people. Protesters often chant against “kids in cages” and encourage officers to “quit your job.”
Federal agents have responded to large and small demonstrations with similar tactics, often expending large amounts of tear gas and less lethal munitions to scatter crowds. The ICE facility is in a residential area and neighbors in nearby high-rises have experienced tear gas seeping into their homes. Now, it appears the same chemicals have drifted down the block to the primary school.
“There’ve been lots of tear gas and munitions used by ICE to disperse protesters, and we’re seeing the munitions coming into our play yard” said Amanda McAdoo, director of the Cottonwood school.
Less lethal munitions and chemical weapons used by law enforcement have raised environmental alarms already, as activists and environmental scientists pointed out over the summer that chemical residue was seeping into drainage systems in downtown Portland.
“Parents, staff, and myself are concerned about the residue in our play yard and what that means when kids come back to school,” McAdoo said. She said she’s picked up spent munitions in the schoolyard where children typically play. “Broken tear gas containers and things like that, we collected quite a bit.”
Some parents are asking whether the school will be decontaminated before the COVID-19 pandemic abates and students can return for in person learning. At least one parent is calling on ICE to stop using tear gas altogether.
“I’m really concerned about what the impacts will be on our kids and their health with all of these toxic chemicals,” said Kate Sharaf, whose child attends second grade at Cottonwood.
“There’s a big mud play area that is really for the youngest kids to use. The kindergarteners wait there for their parents at pickup time every day,” Sharaf said. She said the children will sometimes dig into the mud and play with each other.
“And I love that, but it’s just super alarming to me to think about what’s in that soil now that my kids will be digging and playing in it,” Sharaf said.
Like most students in Oregon, youth at Cottonwood have been learning remotely since March. McAdoo said there is no set date on when children will return to school, though she is hopeful for sometime after spring break.
McAdoo invited a team of activists and volunteers to come onto school grounds this week to collect soil samples and clean up spent munitions. Activist and researcher Dr. Juniper Simonis, who runs a data science lab called Dapper Stats, collected soil samples to analyze soil toxicity.
A group called Team Racoon — activists who volunteer to clean the streets as a form of protest — removed spent munitions from the playground. Team Racoon has also been known to give away respirators to the general public, including specialized respirators for small children, to protect against law enforcement’s regular use of tear gas at protests.
McAdoo said she’s notified the Portland Police Bureau about the munitions found on the playground and filed a report with the state Department of Environmental Quality.
A spokesperson for Portland’s Environmental Services agency said they have installed liners on the storm drains outside of the ICE facility and outside the Multnomah County Justice Center in downtown as a way to protect the Willamette River from tear gas residue.
On Wednesday night, protesters once again gathered outside the ICE facility. Portland police said they assisted federal officers after a dumpster was lit on fire in the street near the federal building, and people reportedly threw “rock-like projectiles” at federal officers.
The officers responded with crowd control weapons. Portland police said they did not use tear gas.