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Philadelphia teachers’ union takes legal action against School District over asbestos

The teachers' union said Monday it will sue the School District over its botched handling of damaged asbestos after teachers at a North Philadelphia elementary school were ordered back into their building even though later air testing showed elevated levels of the cancinogenic fibers.

The Philadelphia School District's handling of asbestos repairs at Alexander McClure Elementary has led to a lawsuit against it by the Philadelphia teachers' union.
The Philadelphia School District's handling of asbestos repairs at Alexander McClure Elementary has led to a lawsuit against it by the Philadelphia teachers' union.Read moreMONICA HERNDON / Staff Photographer

Leaders of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers filed a lawsuit late Monday against the School District, accusing it of failing to protect roughly 125,000 students and 13,000 employees from asbestos hazards in aging buildings.

“From start to finish, the district’s egregious missteps have shown a disregard for the health of my members and our students,” PFT president Jerry Jordan said at a morning news conference at union headquarters in Center City. “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.”

Since October, district officials have closed six schools after the discovery of damaged asbestos that the district’s environmental inspectors had either missed previously or the district failed to repair or remove.

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 shaken many parents and staff.

One parent, Stefanie Marrero, said 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 said during the PFT news conference. “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.”

The PFT’s legal action came after district officials were forced Friday 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 full days before testing showed airborne asbestos fibers.

“The PFT expert said, ‘McClure is not safe.’ The district said, ‘Of course it is’ — until it wasn’t,” said lawyer Deborah Willig, whose law firm has represented the PFT for 40 years. “This can’t continue to happen. We are asking the court to stop it now.”

Willig filed the complaint in Common Pleas Court. The lawsuit seeks “immediate relief," asking a judge to order the School District to comply with the PFT’s demands, which include that the district:

  1. Perform periodic and systematic inspections of all schools “where they know or should have known about environmental hazards.”

  2. Work directly with the PFT to come up with a “written, comprehensive,” court-approved plan that best protects students and staff from asbestos.

  3. Does not conduct asbestos inspections or testing without the involvement of the PFT, 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.

“All of our students and staff members deserve that we stay 100% focused on our efforts to improve environmental conditions in schools,” the district said in a statement Monday morning. “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.”