How Philly teachers want the school district to fix the asbestos problem

A lawsuit filed this week asks for more oversight, more reporting, and more collaboration in the process.

Julia De Burgos Elementary on Lehigh Avevnue

Julia De Burgos Elementary on Lehigh Avevnue

Kimberly Paynter / WHYY
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The union repping Philly teachers has specific suggestions for how to remedy the rampant toxicity in the city’s public schools.

In a 45-page lawsuit filed Monday in the Court of Common Pleas, the union alleges that the School District of Philadelphia and Superintendent William Hite have repeatedly mishandled problems with asbestos, lead and mold inside school buildings.

The Philadelphia Federation of Teachers’ formal complaint comes after a slew of exposed asbestos discoveries led to the closing of six facilities since the beginning of this school year.

It’s not the only entity to go to court over the issue. The district is also being sued by the family of a student who ingested lead paint chips fallen from the ceiling of his classroom. A former teacher diagnosed with mesothelioma said in November she’s planning to sue as well.

In the union’s case, members are not looking for a financial payout. Instead, they want to help build new systems to detect and deal with asbestos and other toxins, so instances like this don’t happen again.

How might that work? Here are eight things the PFT’s lawsuit demands from the school district.

There should be a regular reporting system for facilities staff

The PFT wants a streamlined method for staff at any given school to regularly report the conditions straight to the district — and they want the reported info to be accessible by the union after it’s collected.

The district should perform spot inspections — both when it knows and when it ‘should know’

Not knowing a specific asbestos problem exists is no excuse, the union says. If a building poses a potential asbestos-related hazard to a school community — regardless of whether or not it’s been documented in the past — the school district should perform an “urgent response” inspection, the court filing demands.

The union should be able to access all inspection reports and schedules

It’s not enough to assume the district is doing the work, PFT says in the suit. The union wants unfettered access to all the data, reports and schedules of asbestos-related work in school buildings across the district.

Parents and students should get access to info, too

In addition to demanding that they be kept informed, the teachers’ union also demands that the district keep parents and students notified with relevant information — like testing, inspection and remediation schedules with at least 48 hours notice.

Teachers should be involved in developing new best practices

Repeated multiple times in the union’s suit is the demand that members get a hand in developing best practices, like universal metrics to compare the safety of facilities. The union also wants to be involved in determining when to conduct:

  • Inspections, with 72-hour notice for PFT representatives
  • Assessments
  • School closures
  • Remediations/removals
  • Post-remediation cleanup

The district should keep buildings closed when they should be

This one’s pretty simple: If an inspection reveals that an area is hazardous, the school should be closed, the union suit says, and students and faculty should not be permitted inside.

School staff, parents and students should be trained to detect asbestos

The union wants the district to institute trainings for stakeholders — think school employees, even parents and students — so they can identify potential asbestos hazards on site.

The court should stay on this until both parties are satisfied — and the district should cover legal fees

Just to make sure all works as planned, the PFT wants the Court of Common Pleas to continue to monitor the situation,exercising jurisdiction until both the teacher’s union and the school district agree they’ve set up a solid system.

And though the PFT isn’t in this for the money, it wants the district to cover the legal fees involved in this suit — and any other relief that may become necessary.