Philly Teachers Union is suing the district over asbestos in schools

An Asbestos warning sign
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Late Monday night, educators from the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers (PFT) filed a lawsuit against the school district of Philadelphia. 

Inquirer.com reported the lawsuit accuses the district of failing to protect its 13,000 employees and 125,000 students from asbestos hazards in 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 press conference. “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.”

News of this comes after a North Philly elementary school was closed for a second time Friday. It was closed after the teacher’s demanded tests, which showed the building had elevated levels of asbestos in the air. A day prior, district leaders told teachers that McClure Elementary School was safe. 

Inquirer.com spoke to lawyer Deborah Willig, whose firm has represented the PFT for 40 years. Willig said, “The PFT expert said, ‘McClure is not safe.’ The district said, ‘Of course it is’ — until it wasn’t.”

Willig added that “This can’t continue to happen. We are asking the court to stop it now.”

The complaint was filed in Common Pleas Court, and it asks for a judge to order the district to comply with the PFT’s demands. According to Inquirer.com, the demands included: 

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

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

 -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 lawsuit reads that, “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. 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.”

The district officials say they have complied with federal laws, which include testing during and after asbestos jobs. They also require inspections every three years.

The district added that they have been working with PFT since November working on a document which outlines protocols and processes, but they have not heard back on final approval or edits. 

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

The statement continued, “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.”

Since last fall, six Philly schools have been shut down due to asbestos concerns. 

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