Philadelphia School District
ben franklin

Teachers union sues Philadelphia schools over asbestos hazards

Jan. 21, 2020
The Philadelphia district has closed 6 schools since October because of health threats from airborne asbestos.

The union representing Philadelphia public school teachers has sued the district,accusing it of failing to protect 125,000 students and 13,000 employees from asbestos hazards in aging buildings.

The Philadelphia Inquirer reports that the legal action by the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers comes after the district has closed six schools because of damaged asbestos that environmental inspectors had either missed or the district failed to repair or remove.

“From start to finish, the district’s egregious missteps have shown a disregard for the health of my members and our students,” union president Jerry Jordan says. “Not only is the process by which the district deals with known hazards extraordinarily flawed, but also, from the start, they are missing even identifying extremely hazardous conditions.”

The majority of district schools contain asbestos, which is not considered dangerous if kept in good condition. But the district’s struggle to stay on top of cracked or crumbling asbestos material in schools citywide has upset  many parents and staff.

One parent, Stefanie Marrero, says she has kept her three children — ages 8, 7, and 6 — home from Richmond Elementary since early November because she’s worried about their health. In a letter sent last month, the district warned Marrero that it can take her to Truancy Court, citing her children’s “illegal absences.”

“Education is important, but I’m sorry that my children’s health is more important,” Marrero says. “You know, the school district threatened us with truancy, and they want to report us to [the Department of Human Services], but who do we report them to for neglecting our children? That’s neglect.”

District officials were forced last week to close McClure Elementary in North Philadelphia for the second time after air tests, demanded by teachers and union leaders, showed elevated levels of asbestos in the air. District leaders had repeatedly assured teachers that the building was safe to enter. The school was open for two days before testing showed airborne asbestos fibers.

The lawsuit asks a judge to order the school district to

  • Perform periodic and systematic inspections of all schools “where they know or should have known about environmental hazards.”
  • Work directly with the union to come up with a “written, comprehensive,” court-approved plan that best protects students and staff from asbestos.
  • Refrain from conducting asbestos inspections or testing without the involvement of the union, which would have immediate access to all asbestos reports and lab results.

“The district has acknowledged that its schools’ conditions are hazardous and has developed district-wide health and safety standards applicable to asbestos testing and remediation,” the 45-page lawsuit reads. “However, [the district] has failed to comply with its own standards, despite years of complaints from the union as well as teachers, staff, and students who occupy district buildings.”

District officials have said that they comply with federal laws, which mandate air testing during and after large asbestos jobs and require the district conduct thorough inspections of buildings every three years.

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