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Students' Earthquake Play Shakes Politicians

Dramatically, Vancouver teens send mayor and minister a message: Safe schools are a human right.

By Judith Ince 24 May 2004 | TheTyee.ca
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TheTyee.caA troupe of teenaged actors first made them laugh, and then cry. In the end, a brace of politicians leapt to their feet along with hundreds of students, teachers and parents, who had just seen a "seismic satire" about what happens when governments make kids go to school in buildings that will kill them in an earthquake. Stephen Owen, the federal Minister of Public Works had a front row seat. After the curtain fell, he said, "The vast majority of us were really shocked by the performance and the fact that we were shocked is inexcusable. We've known this forever." The play, he said, "couldn't possibly be a more dramatic expression of how we've got to turn our attention to the dangers of earthquakes, particularly in the schools. "The play, "It Can't Happen Here", was staged at Gladstone secondary, one of at least 50 Vancouver schools likely to be catastrophically damaged in a moderate earthquake. It featured a politician named Gordon Trump, whose preoccupation with his buxom assistant and with slashing budgets caused him to wilfully ignore the perilous condition of schools. Although the audience, no less than Gordon Trump, knew an earthquake would arrive as surely on stage as it would in real life, a wave of stunned emotion still surged through the crowd when the stage shook and debris rained down on students. In a quavering voice, the chair of the Vancouver School Board, Adrienne Montani, said afterwards, "I'm really choked up.It really brings the message home." Students jumpstarted issue Owen used the occasion to announce $360,000 to research the best methods of calculating the most cost-effective ways of assessing schools' seismic risks and fixing the schools. However, he still acknowledged that, "There's lots of money out there.and this is a really small step forward." Current estimates put the cost of bringing Vancouver schools up to provincial building codes at about $300 million. Vancouver's mayor, Larry Campbell, said politicians shouldn't take any credit for inching forward on this issue. Instead, he applauded students for rousing politicians from their torpor. "The incredible thing is, that it started with the very people who are at risk," he said. The first wave of student activism on seismic issues began with Nathan Luisigan and his classmate Alvin Singh, when they were in Grade 10 at Van Tech, the East Vancouver high school considered most likely to collapse in an earthquake of even moderate intensity. The day after an earthquake rumbled through Seattle in February 2001, the pair launched a group called The Lizards, and embarked on an ambitious guerrilla media campaign to draw attention to the thousands of children whose lives were at risk because of seismically unsafe schools. Luisigan said, "When we started this, there was no political will, and now you see people-although the money hasn't quite fallen into place-falling all over themselves to support it.""It attests to the fact that students can get a lot done, and students are an amazing force," Singh said. 'Definitely a human rights issue' Singh and Lusignan's efforts have redefined the seismic issue, expanding it beyond school safety. "It's definitely a human rights issue," Luisigan said. "Children deserve to be safe. They deserve to go to safe schools, especially when the province mandates that they go to school. To have them learning in environments that are potentially fatal is not only hypocritical, it's sort of obscene." An international group of seismic experts brought together by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) last February in Paris, arrived at a similar conclusion. In its report, the group recommended that governments should recognize safe schools as a fundamental human right. It would be "unconscionable" to ignore this right any longer. " In the last few decades alone, thousands of school children have died because existing knowledge was not applied to make their schools safe from earthquakes," the report said.Andrea Reimer, the lone Green trustee on the Vancouver School Board, agreed. "It's absolutely a human right. It's ridiculous to be in a building that threatens your own life," she said. 'Vaccinating' buildings comparatively cheap Like the city's students, parents have been pushing the seismic issue from new perspectives. Family physician Tracy Monk, a mother of two and a founder of a group called Families for School Seismic Safety, has analyzed the problem from a public health perspective. Her research shows that the cost of making Vancouver schools safe is inexpensive if compared to other public health interventions. Monk used a public health approach, which typically assesses the effectiveness of a particular prevention effort by comparing its cost to the number of years of life it saves. When she looked at seismically vulnerable schools, Monk found that repairing them costs $43,000 per year of life saved. This price tag is comparable to other prevention efforts like child car seats, which cost $44,000 per year of life saved; it is cheaper than PAP smears which amount to $68,000 per year of life saved. However, Monk pointed out that she did her calculations based on the Vancouver School Board's estimate that fixing all the city's schools will cost about $400 million. She said even the most conservative engineers consider this figure too high, and there are some indications that all 500 seismically risky schools in the province could be fixed for the same amount. If that is the case, Monk said, the cost per year of life saved could decline significantly." In this case you vaccinate the building, and many generations of inhabitants are protected," Monk said. "In medical terms, it's actually not that much money, nor is it that much money in the pockets of government, particularly when you split it between the federal and provincial governments over 10 years." Chief medical officer urges action Dr. John Blatherwick, the chief medical health officer for the Vancouver Coastal Health Authority, has endorsed Monk's findings. It's time, he said, for governments to act."These are very old schools and at some point in time we have to bite the bullet, and what we're doing is like so many things. We're saying, 'yes, we could do that, but right now we'll build Olympic skating ovals over doing the schools,'" he said. Monk said, if common sense can't spur governments to take immediate action, perhaps biological instincts could. "If we wanted to name the few things that were absolutely essential to us, educating our children and making them safe would be very close to the top of the list if not the top of the list," she said. "Somehow we've stuffed these two critical issues [education and seismic safety] into the same under-funded budget. It doesn't make a bit of sense, even from an evolutionary-biological point of view. It's so maladaptive." Mayor: 'Not something you can put off' Pushing seismic spending to the top of the list also has the support of Mayor Larry Campbell. After seeing the play at Gladstone, he said, "Why would we be worried about all these other things, like the RAV line, the Olympics, all of these things when we haven't protected our children? Or the buildings they go to school in where they spend most of their lives.this is not something which you can put off." Tom Christensen, the Minister of Education didn't show up to see "It Can't Happen Here", nor did any other provincial Liberals. As schools are a provincial responsibility, it's up to the province to fix them. Gladstone student, Duncan Coombe, 15, suggested governments are indifferent to students because, "They consider us to be something of a minority, and they don't see us as that important until we are old enough to vote." Singh said he is wary of making school seismic safety into an expressly partisan issue. He and Lusignan said they are driven by a belief that the greatest change occurs when people with divergent political perspectives are mobilized to support the same issue." People have really stepped up, and a lot of that is due to really strong relationships internally, where people refused to make it political and refused to make it about power," Luisigan said.Monk is optimistic that the province will spend the money to fix the province's fragile schools. She said Christensen, "really seemed to understand the issue and seemed to embrace the solutions that we were proposing, so it's just a question of gearing up and cranking up the bureaucracy to implement it all."Christensen was unavailable for an interview, but his spokesperson said he would be making an announcement about seismic rehabilitation of schools shortly. Judith Ince JudithInce@Telus.net, a Vancouver-based journalist with a special focus on education, will be contributing reports to The Tyee.  [Tyee]

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