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‘Enough is enough’: at Philly school board meeting, community demands action

The heat on Philadelphia School District leaders grows as hundreds protest what they call a bumbling response to environmental problems in school buildings.

Philadelphia students protest environmental hazards in their schools at a school board meeting Nov. 21.
Philadelphia students protest environmental hazards in their schools at a school board meeting Nov. 21.Read moreSTEVEN M. FALK / Staff Photographer

Anger over environmental conditions in Philadelphia public schools heightened Thursday as parents, teachers, students, and community members demanded action from the school board at a rally and a raucous public meeting.

For months, the School District has been rocked by revelations of schools with dangerous toxins, damaged asbestos prominent among them. Fresh outrage came after an Inquirer story in which veteran Meredith Elementary teacher Lea DiRusso, 51, spoke for the first time about being diagnosed with mesothelioma, a rare cancer caused by asbestos.

Both elementary schools in which DiRusso worked, Meredith and Nebinger, had damaged asbestos that went unrepaired for months, sometimes years, in spaces occupied by students and staff.

And students and staff at four schools — Benjamin Franklin High School, Science Leadership Academy, Peirce Elementary, and Pratt, an early childhood education center — have been moved out of their buildings or will be soon because of crumbling asbestos.

Melissa Robbins, whose son is a sophomore at George Washington High School, told dozens of protesters at a rally before the school board meeting that it was time for Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. and others in district leadership to resign.

“Enough is enough,” said Robbins, a former radio host. “This has been going on for a long, long, long time. So why did Dr. Hite and the leadership ignore it? Why did they think it was OK for educators to enter buildings each day, students to enter buildings each day, knowing that their lives were at risk?"

Hite earlier this week announced an environmental safety plan that would, among other things, require all reports of damaged asbestos to be investigated within 24 hours. The superintendent pledged $12 million to expand the district’s capacity to deal with asbestos, but said millions more would be needed.

Board member Mallory Fix Lopez said at the meeting that she supported Hite, but she took him to task as well, saying some of the public heat “has been self-inflicted” because the district failed to communicate honestly about the environmental hazards. “There’s no wiggle room, no opportunity for any more mistakes,” she said.

Fix Lopez underscored a disparity in the district’s response. At Meredith and SLA, where students are wealthier and whiter than many other district schools, the problems were communicated more clearly, she said.

“It’s not OK that parents and teachers are simply supposed to trust the process,” Fix Lopez said at a meeting where people waved signs and wore face masks. “It’s not OK that our most marginalized communities feel particularly forgotten, and once again at the back of the line.”

At Peirce, in North Philadelphia, for instance, it took the district a month — and questioning by The Inquirer — to begin investigating asbestos issues after the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers’ environmental scientist, Jerry Roseman, flagged them. Other schools got swifter action.

Hite has apologized, but in a testy exchange with people in the audience, said that “it’s my responsibility to fix this problem that started long before I got here, but it is all of our responsibility to advocate for what young people need in Harrisburg. You can’t just come and yell at a meeting.”

Zoe Rooney, a Philadelphia teacher and School District parent, told Hite it was disingenuous to suggest that activists haven’t been fighting for more funding for years. District officials “have outright lied and said our schools were safe when they were not," Rooney said.

The meeting grew heated again when a group of school nurses told the board that district administrators have been tampering with student medical records and giving the nurses confusing and contradictory orders.

They also expressed alarm because without standing orders from the district physician, they are not allowed to give students pain medications such as ibuprofen or other over-the-counter drugs. The district’s former physician left in early October and has not been replaced.

“I am appalled at the disrespect and sheer disregard of school nurses in this district,” said Colleen Quinn, nurse at the Philadelphia High School for Creative and Performing Arts.

Board member Maria McColgan, a physician, said the situation was unacceptable. Nurses “were hired to do a job and then their hands were tied behind their back,” McColgan said.