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Fall 2000
The Slum Buster
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Adds law student Vanessa Alvarado: "He's really dedicated to us. He gives us a lot of direction, but he also gives us a lot of wisdom. He's so knowledgeable because he's had so much experience."

Blasi latched on to the school-conditions project after an ACLU attorney called him about some clients whose kids attended a Northern California school without heat. Did Blasi know anything about heat regulations governing schools? Blasi didn't, but immediately was intrigued by the idea. "I've never worked in public education, but because of the topic and the quality of the people working on it, I thought this would be a good project for my class."

One of Blasi's sayings - he has several he regularly imparts in class - is "Ninety percent of good public policy is getting the facts." Another is "Someone needs to take the role of chief worrier in a case." With those in mind, Blasi's students went to work. Breaking into teams, they scoured public documents and pored over state regulations. They dissected the state's Health and Safety Code. They learned how to file Freedom of Information Act requests. They searched the California Constitution for language on education to determine the state's role and they read every newspaper article on the problem they could find. Along the way, they raised questions: Who inspects schools to be sure they have working plumbing? How often are they inspected? Who is responsible for seeing that schools have air conditioning and heat? What are the regulations on providing kids with textbooks?

The hardest part was finding people within the schools willing to talk. "Advocacy is about stories," says Blasi. "It's not about statistics. So the students interviewed a lot of junior high school and high school students and developed the narratives that are a large part of the case."

Whalley unearthed a gold mine of information through the California School Nurse Organization, a group known for its social activism. During their February convention in L.A., the president announced the UCLA project while Whalley and other students put fliers on the nurses' chairs. That effort produced more than 100 responses. "They were very happy to talk to us because I think they felt frustrated," says Whalley. "They could not get things done."

Working inside the school health system gave the nurses a unique perspective and air of authority. They identified significant problems: decrepit old portables with mold and mildew that provoked asthma attacks; newer bungalows built with toxic materials that gave teachers and students frequent headaches or respiratory problems; children who refused to use the bathrooms because they were so filthy and had to wait until they got home.

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