Frightened about the effects of asbestos found in their children’s North Philadelphia school, and furious at the school system’s top brass, a group of parents told officials Monday that they won’t send their children back to classes until the students are relocated to another building.

At a meeting during which tempers frequently flared, dozens of T.M. Peirce Elementary parents shot down a School District plan to keep children at the school while dealing with the damaged asbestos. Officials have begun to implement the plan, relocating the lunchroom to the library and ordering portable bathrooms placed in the schoolyard.

Principal Anthony Gordon said the school’s instructional program would continue uninterrupted.

“I was told there’s no exposure, there’s no imminent danger,” Gordon said.

But parent Felicia Thomas said parents don’t believe the district’s promises, and believe their children are being penalized because they are poor children of color.

“They are babies, and you are putting them in harm’s risk,” Thomas said. “If we were in another neighborhood, this would not happen, period.”

Charmaine Mitchell agreed. “It’s unfathomable in my mind,” she said. “How can they allow the kids to still come to school?”

Officials seemed to back off their initial plan by the end of the meeting, saying they would tell parents by Friday what would happen next. Peirce’s building is scheduled to be torn down and replaced with a $40 million structure on the school grounds at 23rd and Cambria Street. Chief of schools Shawn Bird said Peirce students might be relocated quickly and return when the new structure is built a few years from now.

Asbestos was first discovered in the T.M. Peirce Elementary School gym in mid-September; the Philadelphia School District waited a month before responding to concerns about it.
Philadelphia Federation of Teachers Health and Welfare Fund
Asbestos was first discovered in the T.M. Peirce Elementary School gym in mid-September; the Philadelphia School District waited a month before responding to concerns about it.

The school system has known about Peirce’s asbestos problem since mid-September, when the teachers union’s environmental expert observed damaged asbestos in the gym and alerted district officials. The district did not send a crew to examine Peirce for asbestos until The Inquirer began asking questions in late October; it later said it did not have the staff or resources to deal with the problem.

The school system already had been criticized for mishandling asbestos contamination during construction at the building housing Benjamin Franklin High and Science Leadership Academy. Under intense pressure from a group led by SLA parents, nearly 1,000 students from those schools ultimately were relocated due to asbestos and environmental issues.

Peirce’s basement was shut down last week after a building inspection found additional areas of damaged asbestos insulation, including “cracked and exposed” material in the lunchroom and asbestos debris on top of basement ceiling tiles.

In all, the district plans to remove roughly 5,000 square feet of asbestos material in the school’s basement, with abatement crews working after school hours, district records show.

“It’s the aggregation of the conditions in this school that worries me,” said Jerry Roseman, the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers environmental scientist. “Asbestos has been found in a number of different areas — some with small damage, some with water impact and damage, some in highly accessible areas, and you have some locations with debris.”

Roseman, who first alerted the district to concerns about asbestos at Peirce in mid-September, said the district allowed the hazardous conditions to sit for too long.

“You have a system that is responding way too slowly, in a much too limited way, and often downplaying the potential risks that are posed to people, wanting to claim that every situation is safe and no one will be put in harm’s way, and from my perspective, this kind of approach is really worrisome,” he said after the meeting. “Instead, there needs to be a more considered and nuanced view of the kinds of risks that are posed in a school environment like this.”

Parents at Monday’s meeting said Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. should have been there. Hite was attending Ben Franklin/SLA parent meetings.

They also expressed anger that the district had kept them in the dark for so long, notifying them about asbestos only after The Inquirer story was published Oct. 24.

“You guys should be frustrated. I would be as well,” said Amelia Coleman Brown, the assistant superintendent responsible for Peirce.

Tuesday is a planned day off for students. Many of the parents said they felt the same as Mitchell, who declared that her son would not return to 23rd and Cambria on Wednesday or until the asbestos was removed or a new school built.

“It’s ridiculous," Mitchell said, “and it’s unacceptable.”