Pennsylvania Record

Friday, February 21, 2020

Teachers union takes to court to fight Philadelphia School District over asbestos in classrooms

State Court

By Nicholas Malfitano | Jan 22, 2020

Phillysd
School District of Philadelphia

PHILADELPHIA – The union representing Philadelphia’s public school teachers has filed a lawsuit against the city’s school district, alleging its improper handling of asbestos contamination in its school buildings has put 125,000 students and 13,000 staff members at risk for serious health issues.

Though the courts were closed during the day on Monday in observance of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day, the union electronically submitted its filing to the Philadelphia County Court of Common Pleas on Monday evening, through its counsel from Willig Williams & Davidson, in Philadelphia.

The Philadelphia Federation of Teachers and its president Jerry Jordan are listed as plaintiffs in the litigation, with the School District of Philadelphia and its Superintendent, Dr. William R. Hite Jr., listed as defendants.

The litigation arrived after the district was forced to close McClure Elementary School for a second time on Jan. 17, after diagnostic tests demanded by both the school’s teachers and union leaders showed elevated levels of airborne asbestos, a carcinogen.

Just the day before, School District of Philadelphia leaders assured teachers that the school building was safe to enter.

That wasn’t good enough for Jordan.

“From start to finish, the district’s egregious missteps have shown a disregard for the health of my members and our students. 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,” Jordan said.

“Time and again, the School District has claimed that their actions are out of an abundance of caution. What we’ve seen time and again is the District’s willingness to throw caution to the wind and as a result put children and educators at risk.”

Besides being a health threat, Jordan opined the issue to be one of racial injustice.

“As we commemorate Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday, this is a profound reminder of the fact that our society has let far too much of Dr. King’s mission go unrealized. We have seen the injustice unfold time and again in our fight to not only fund our facilities, but to address the catastrophic deficiencies in the process. These are conditions that would never be tolerated in a wealthier, whiter school district.”

Counsel for the teachers’ union concurred.

“The School District of Philadelphia is breaking the law. Unionism is about standing up against injustice and using every tool possible to do so. Our filing will seek immediate relief from the unconscionable conduct that puts the health of our children and educators at risk every day,” plaintiff counsel member Deborah R. Willig said.

The litigation states the district’s inspections have not been up to par.

“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. 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,” the suit states.

Meanwhile, the School District of Philadelphia released a statement in response to the lawsuit.

“All of our students and staff members deserve that we stay 100 percent focused on our efforts to improve environmental conditions in schools,” according to the District.

“We will do just that. Our hope is that we can focus our collective efforts on finalizing the processes and protocols document we proposed to the PFT in November and genuinely working together – without distractions – to address environmental issues effectively and with the urgency our students and staff deserve. We will thoroughly review the legal filings once we receive them.”

The suit looks to compel the school district to accede to the union’s demands, which include that the district:

• Conduct periodic and thorough inspections of all schools “where they know or should have known about environmental hazards”;

• Cooperate with the union to devise and create a written and court-approved plan that best protects students and staff from asbestos; and

• Does not conduct 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 admitted that 174 of its 214 schools have asbestos located somewhere inside their buildings, though it added the substance only presents a danger to human health once it separates and becomes airborne.

Yet, in the past three months alone, six Philadelphia schools were closed by the district after damaged asbestos was found that environmental inspectors either previously missed spotting and/or that the district failed to repair or remove.

Ninety-five Philadelphia schools were listed on the 2019-2020 Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act winter inspection schedule. The round of inspections began on Dec. 2 and was planned to conclude on March 20.

Further public attention was drawn to the matter when Lea DiRusso, a 51 year-old former teacher in Philadelphia, appeared on ABC Network’s “Good Morning America” in November and disclosed that years of working in two different school buildings with damaged asbestos fibers led her to develop peritoneal mesothelioma.

Mesothelioma is an aggressive cancer often targeting the lungs and abdomen, primarily resulting from long-term exposure to asbestos fibers. Though it can sometimes take years and even decades to develop, patients diagnosed with the disease have an average survival rate of one year.

Forced to retire from her 28-year teaching career in August due to her diagnosis, DiRusso also plans to sue the School District of Philadelphia.

“I was completely unaware, as are my colleagues and staff and students, that there even was asbestos present in the school building. I did not know that the steam pipes behind me were wrapped in asbestos. And I touched them and I hung clotheslines to hang student work. And I used it because I was creating a home for my students,” DiRusso said.

DiRusso most recently worked in William M. Meredith Elementary School and prior to that, in George W. Nebinger Elementary School. Both buildings have existed for nearly a century and have a documented history of asbestos-related issues, including in the classrooms where DiRusso taught.

In the instant case and for violations of the Pennsylvania Constitution and statutory law, the plaintiffs are seeking equitable injunctive relief consisting of the defendants maintaining school buildings in conditions that are healthful and pose minimal health and accident hazards, plus reasonable attorney’s fees and costs; and such other relief as may be deemed necessary and proper.

The plaintiffs are represented by Deborah R. Willig, John R. Bielski, Lauren M. Hoye and William J. Campbell IV of Willig Williams & Davidson, in Philadelphia.

Philadelphia County Court of Common Pleas case 200102262

From the Pennsylvania Record: Reach Courts Reporter Nicholas Malfitano at nick.malfitano@therecordinc.com

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