West Oakland’s McClymonds High School – A Sacrifice Zone Or A School?

Since February 20th, McClymonds High School in West Oakland has been shut down because Trichloroethylene, or TCE, was found in the groundwater. TCE is a chemical used as solvent to remove grease from metal parts used in industry. When TCE evaporates into the air, it can be toxic, can cause headaches, rashes, cancer, nerve damage, liver damage and more. The students of McClymonds and residents of West Oakland, who are mostly African American, are nestled in various industrial facilities including multiple former metal plating shops a few blocks away.

The lives of students throughout West Oakland have been disrupted by this scandal. Displaced McClymonds students have been sent to three other schools in West Oakland. This accommodation has also uprooted all of the students at Ralph Bunch Academy to make room for the students from McClymonds.

Unfortunately, the poisoning of the McClymonds community is nothing new. This blatant disregard for health is just the tip of the iceberg. The discovery of TCE is coming on the heels of finding unsafe levels of lead in the drinking water in McClymonds and six other schools in Oakland in 2017.

Communities like those in West Oakland not only are often faced with the public health issues such as underemployment and poverty, they also face environmental discrimination. In West Oakland, whether the source is the Port of Oakland, the toxic industrial zones or the 880 freeway, a dangerous amount of exhaust is spewed into the air. For West Oakland residents, the overall rate of asthma emergency department visits is almost twice the rate for the average resident in Alameda county. In addition, a 2013 study found that, “an African American child born in West Oakland can expect to live 14 fewer years compared to a white child born in the affluent Oakland hills.”

There is a reason why toxic industrial plants are not built in wealthy neighborhoods. For the system that we live in to function, it needs to turn certain parts of society into “sacrifice zones”, where people and the natural environment are used and then abandoned, creating desperation and ravaged ecosystems. West Oakland is one of many examples.

But there are people who are not content with having their health, communities and environment simply sacrificed and disregarded. Students, parents, alumni and community members have not suffered in silence. At various town halls, and community meetings, people have denounced the school district, the city and the surrounding industries because of their shared responsibility in allowing this crisis to take place.