TAMPA — There are nights when it’s bedtime, but Anthony Johnson is on his phone, searching the internet for articles about lead.

Since the 12-year-old was photographed for a Tampa Bay Times report about high levels of lead in some Hillsborough County schools, Anthony has been keenly concerned about what he and his friends are drinking.

“The lead doesn’t fit anywhere in your body,” said the 6th grader at Jennings Middle School. “It kills you if you get too much.”

That’s why Anthony started a bottled water drive for schools that have not yet had their water tested — or for anyone who is troubled by the lead levels already discovered.

“I don’t want my friends to be sick,” he said.

Anthony Johnson, 12, stacks cases of donated water. (BRONTE WITTPENN | Times)
Anthony Johnson, 12, stacks cases of donated water. (BRONTE WITTPENN | Times)

School officials in recent weeks have said emphatically that school water is as safe as or safer than the water in their students’ homes. State law doesn’t explicitly require districts to test most schools, and most Florida districts don’t, they have noted repeatedly.

The district, however, waited more than a year before disclosing the testing program and the results to the public, the Times has reported. And at first the district posted only those results over 15 parts per billion, a statistical measurement that is used to regulate utilities. Public health experts say there’s no safe level of lead in water, and say young children can be hurt by persistent exposure to water with as little as 5 parts of lead per billion.

Anthony’s grandmother, Cherylene Levy, who is raising him along with his two younger sisters, responded to the Times report by sending him back to school on Aug. 10 with bottles of water.

But Anthony’s schoolmates at Jennings, which had not yet been tested, did not have bottled water.

Anthony started off on the school’s first day, giving bottles out to the kids at the bus stop.

Then he wondered, what about the other kids?

He remembered how a local merchant donated water to police during the 2017 manhunt for accused serial killer Howell Donaldson III. Levy’s brother, Ronald Felton, was the fourth victim in the killing spree.

Anthony asked his grandmother, would businesses do the same for students in the schools?

Since then, Levy said, “it’s like going haywire.”

Friends, neighbors, the family barber, water vendors and other businesses have donated cases, showing up at all hours at her East Tampa house.

(BRONTE WITTPENN | Times)
(BRONTE WITTPENN | Times)

She estimates her family has received about 100 cases of water since the drive began. On Thursday, she was working out the logistics of delivering the water to 15 schools, something that will likely happen next week with the help of a local towing company.

She’s been careful to get permission from the schools after documenting that the water was donated.

At home on a recent Friday, family members discussed the advantages and disadvantages of switching from fountains to bottles.

“This is temporary,” said Howard Harris, a family friend who has tutored the children for years.

Bottled water can lack the fluoridation found in tap water, he told them. And the plastic bottles fill landfills, polluting the earth.

Harris suggested the students drink bottled water only until the district completes its testing. The latest plan calls for that to happen in December.

Anthony also understands that children must stay hydrated, especially on days when the heat index is high and the school air conditioning cuts out. Invariably, students will drink from the fountains. “But not too much,” he cautions them.

(BRONTE WITTPENN | Times)
(BRONTE WITTPENN | Times)

With 230 schools in the district, Levy knows there is no way she and Anthony can serve them all.

But she is proud of her grandson, an A student who wants to be a football player and then a lawyer.

“This is like the catalyst,” said family friend Janet Brooks, who was at Levy’s home donating water. “Maybe someone else will join him and pick up Anthony’s cause and donate it to schools in their area.”

Contact Marlene Sokol at [email protected]. Follow @marlenesokol. Contact Brontë Wittpenn [email protected]. Follow @BronteWittpenn.