Update (10/27/2023): Another Philadelphia school in 2023 closed due to asbestos, highlighting the need for renovations across the city’s schools and the reason for the teachers’ protest reported in this blog. According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, Southwark Elementary School closed in October. It’s the first school closure in Philadelphia of the 2023-2024 school year.
Three teachers in Philadelphia have filed a class action lawsuit against the city’s School District for violating their First Amendment rights to express concerns about asbestos issues in school buildings.
According to ABC6 in Philadelphia, the lawsuit claims the School District docked their pay for “unauthorized absences” after they spent the school day outside to protest widespread issues of deteriorating asbestos in their school and other Philadelphia schools.
The teachers who filed the lawsuit are Ethan Tannen, Carolyn Gray and Karen Celli. Tannen and Gray are current teachers at Julia R. Masterman Laboratory and Demonstration School. Celli retired in June 2023. The claim stems from docked pay from a day during the 2022-2023 school year when Celli was still a teacher.
According to ABC6, the teachers are seeking restitution of their lost wages, plus interest, along with an expungement of any disciplinary action from their employment records.
According to ABC6, the latest report from the Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act for the Masterman School building, from the 2018-2019 school year, identified more than 100 “confirmed” or “assumed” sources of asbestos in the building.
ABC6 reports the three teachers assembled their “workstations” outside as a form of protest regarding the dangers of asbestos. They did so because they felt the School District did not provide adequate information to parents or teachers on the hazardous asbestos issues in the city’s schools.
“Those teachers were not ‘absent’,” Mary Catherine Roper, an attorney who represents all three teachers, said to ABC News in a statement on Sept. 13. “The district knew that and knew they were working. The district wanted to stop the protest, so they threatened the teachers and then punished them. That violates the First Amendment.”
Philadelphia School District officials said it would not comment on pending litigation.
Asbestos: A Critical Health Issue
Asbestos is a dangerous mineral, capable of causing cancers such as mesothelioma, lung cancer and ovarian cancer. These facts would make one believe asbestos should not be present in any buildings, especially schools, where hundreds of children spend eight hours a day.
Unfortunately, the dangers of asbestos were not known until the 1980s, and asbestos was a prized mineral in construction and insulation before then for its sturdiness and ability to resist heat.
Asbestos was used in the building of homes, offices, hospitals, schools and government buildings. Any schools built prior to the 1980s were probably built with asbestos. If the school has not been renovated in some time – which is common in public schools due to financial restraints – then asbestos is likely still hiding in the walls, in the ceiling tiles, in the electrical sockets, and under the floorboards.
Issues of Asbestos in Philadelphia Schools
Asbestos has been a long-running issue in Philadelphia schools. The problem has persisted for several years, leading to school buildings closing down and frustrations for teachers, staff, students and parents. The issue made local and national headlines.
In 2018, the Philadelphia Inquirer published a series of articles exposing the shocking conditions of Philadelphia’s public schools. Benjamin Franklin High School and Science Leadership Academy were the first schools to shut down.
Several other schools have shut down since then, including a few in 2023:
- Students at Building 21 High School switched to virtual learning for two weeks in early March of 2023 when asbestos was found in decaying paint in the school. Students moved to Strawberry Mansion High School.
- Asbestos led to the closure of Simon Gratz High School Mastery Charter less than one week after Building 21 High School closed.
Teachers Taking Action Against School District
This lawsuit is not the first time Philadelphia teachers have voiced concerns or fought back against the School District.
According to ABC6, dozens of staff members from Philadelphia schools held a rally in May. The staff were from Building 21, Frankford High School and Mitchell Elementary School, all of which have closed due to severe asbestos problems.
The rally was held outside of the School District headquarters. The teachers said during the rally that the School District is responsible for exposing students and staff members to asbestos.
Another Philadelphia teacher filed a mesothelioma lawsuit against the School District. The teacher, who was diagnosed with mesothelioma, sued the district for her cancer diagnosis. She said the Philadelphia School District was responsible for her disease and did not do enough to keep her, the school’s students or other school staff safe from the dangerous mineral.
Mrs. DiRusso spent nearly 30 years teaching at Meredith Elementary, a 90-year-old school. Her school was known to have leaking pipes, damaged asbestos insulation and peeling (lead) paint. She was diagnosed with peritoneal mesothelioma in 2019 a few months before schools began shutting down for asbestos issues.
- Philadelphia teachers sue district for First Amendment rights violation over asbestos protests. ABC6. Retrieved from: https://6abc.com/asbestos-philadelphia-school-district-teachers-first-amendment-rights/13784124/. Accessed: 09/282023.
- Philadelphia school staff hold rally to draw awareness to asbestos issues. ABC6. Retrieved from: https://6abc.com/asbestos-issues-philadelphia-school-district-staff-rally-petition/13267399/. Accessed: 09/28/2023.
- Asbestos closes Southwark Elementary School. Most students to relocate to South Philly High. Philadelphia Inquirer. Retrieved from: https://www.inquirer.com/education/philadelphia-school-asbestos-closed-southwark-20231027.html. Accessed: 10/27/2023.
Sources & Author
Sources & Author