'It was like a movie': the high school students who uncovered a toxic waste scandal

In the 90s, an inspirational teacher and his students uncovered corruption and illegal dumping in their backyard. Nearly 30 years on, is Middletown still at risk? In the summer of 1991, Middletown high school, roughly 70 miles north of Manhattan in New York’s verdant Orange County, acquired a handful of video cameras. The goal was to train the school’s teenage students in film-making and media production, using local subjects as a starting point – perhaps a documentary about the city’s sports teams or an amateur talkshow. Instead, under the tutelage of Middletown high’s popular English teacher, Fred Isseks, a rowdy and diverse group of teenagers organised themselves into an investigative journalism unit. Officially, Isseks’ class was open only to the school’s oldest students, aged 16 to 18 – but, unofficially, it welcomed everyone. Kids not even enrolled in the course joined Isseks’ students in shooting short films. The teenagers alternated between grungy early-90s flannel and choker necklaces and awkward