District Flips the Bird To Parents & PFT!! Allows Dangerous Asbestos Conditions To Fester

It’s been two years since the Masterman HSA began wrestling with the School District of Philadelphia in the attempt to understand the extent of asbestos hazards at our school.  The PFT has joined us in the struggle, providing technical environmental science expertise and we now know –  from the School District of Philadelphia’s own reports, data and photos – that there is damaged, friable asbestos and debris – hazardous conditions at Masterman that can negatively impact the health, safety and welfare of our staff and students.

Here we are again just one week from students coming back into buildings without the information or communication needed to ensure asbestos issues are being managed safely. They have scheduled asbestos remediation to happen the first days of school opening and have conveniently omitted the schedule for other major abatement work that is slated to happen this school year. In the years before Covid-19 closed schools, asbestos and construction work done while children and staff were in the building led to significant asbestos exposures and emergency closures of schools. The District is following their notorious playbook.

The Masterman HSA Environmental Committee has learned – from years of emails drowning in platitudes, discussions brimming with hollow reassurances, one sided, pre-scripted meetings with the District and then finally being forced to file a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request – that the School District of Philadelphia continues to dismiss and minimize the massive scale and scope of these problems. They have repeatedly refused to do what is needed to protect our students and staff!

Damaged asbestos pipe insulation located in a classroom by the whiteboard.

Damaged asbestos like this, located near the whiteboard in a Masterman classroom, is too common in Philadelphia Public Schools. The District’s policy is to do the minimum to manage asbestos, leaving it to crumble and endanger students and staff. Any damage to asbestos can release tiny fibers that then circulate in the air and are breathed in. This can lead to development of cancers, such as mesothelioma, lung, ovarian, and laryngeal cancer as well as other debilitating long term diseases.

District leadership has a long documented history of the same pattern of behavior that repeats over and over again. These irresponsible actions have led to tragic consequences like the BFHS

/SLA catastrophy, lead poisoning of a 6 year old boy at Comly Elementary School, Teacher Lia DiRusso diagnosed with incurable Mesothelioma after 30 years of asbestos exposures at Meredith and Nebinger schools, and 11 schools having to close due to asbestos within a span of a few months during the 2019/2020 school year. Thousands of kids and teachers are learning and teaching day after day, breathing dangerous, invisible asbestos dust.

Masterman is not the worst affected school in the District! Without a doubt public schools throughout Philadelphia have conditions that are worse, some much worse! And yet, the District sticks to its ineffective and exclusionary tactics, despite tragic, disastrous results. School communities all across Philadelphia, HSA’s, and the PFT have experienced this. City Council members, Board of Education members, investigative reporters, news anchors, advocacy groups of all kinds – know of the District’s failings and the dangers that it poses to our children and teachers. It is no secret!

The District has proven over and over again that it is not transparent, it is not trustworthy. Statements assuring us of the health and safety of our children from District Officials are often inaccurate, misleading or downright dishonest. We must say ENOUGH!

Statements by the District and their contractors or “partners” that often claim they are following regulations are just a distraction meant to confuse people. The “regulations” that the District references are bare minimums required by law, just as the minimum wage regulation doesn’t provide a living wage, minimum hazardous material management does not provide safe buildings. The District refuses to follow “Best Practices” or even the industry standard for schools. Each day that the District refuses to implement these procedures, each minute there is no one watching to make them accountable, our children breathe in more asbestos fibers.

Our voices must join together and DEMAND that the District take a different approach starting TODAY – one that includes sharing all information openly, and immediately.

If  the School District of Philadelphia really believes that “The health, safety and welfare of our students and staff is our highest priority” — Then they must Prove It!:

We have 3 Urgent Demands Before the Start of School

  1. The District must be immediately directed by the Mayor, City Council and Board of Education to release all environmental related documents, reports, test results and materials that have been repeatedly demanded by the PFT and individual parent groups.
  2. The District must be immediately directed by the Mayor, City Council and Board of Education to respond to the requests and concerns expressed by Masterman parents to directly assess the asbestos situation and construction work at Masterman and to do the same at every other school where families and staff have similar issues through a process that involves joint and independent evaluation by the PFT and other stakeholders who have experienced and expert environmental science capability and providing answers to questions from families and staff.
  3. The District must agree to work with the PFT and with other school staff representatives and with family representatives in an open, comprehensive and transparent manner that follows a defined set of objectives, goals and approaches.

Please take a minute to sign the petition and another minute to fill out a quick form to send emails to our city & state leaders.

Email Campaign: https://actionnetwork.org/letters/demand-transparency-collaboration-accountability-safe-schools-from-the-school-district-of-philadelphia/

Petition: https://actionnetwork.org/petitions/demand-transparency-collaboration-accountability-safe-schools-from-the-school-district-of-philadelphia/

Image of damaged asbestos, peeling paint, rodent droppings and accumulated debris above dropped ceilings in a classroom.

Photos from an asbestos inspection showing damaged asbestos, peeling paint, and rodent droppings accumulated on top of dropped ceiling tiles in a 5th grade Masterman classroom. The School District of Philadelphia told the Masterman HSA that they plan to leave debris such as this in place or vacuum it up without testing the debris or required asbestos remediation safety measures. A District official claimed the untested debris did not contain asbestos even though it is located directly under the damaged asbestos pipe insulation! Just a year ago, in early 2019, Hopkins Elementary was closed due to accumulated asbestos debris on top of dropped ceiling tiles being disturbed. Yet the District claims that this is not a hazard.

We are sharing our story because we know it is not a unique one. Our attempts to collaborate with the District have only intensified our frustrations, deepened our concern for the safety of our children and teachers, and shown us the urgent need for transparency from the District.

The District is only able to continue these practices if we stay in our lane and eventually tire of the constant battle. We ask you to share your story and support the fight not just for one school, but every school, every child and every teacher in the District.

(Lea) DiRusso, 51, spent her 28-year teaching career at two South Philadelphia elementary schools with known crumbling asbestos that the school system had largely papered over for decades. It’s been nearly nine months since she was diagnosed with an aggressive cancer caused by asbestos.


It’s like holding a grenade in your hand, and you’re pulling the pin out,” DiRusso said. “Do people not understand that this is deadly? Let me tell you, it is. (Inquirer May 2020)

It’s also been TWO YEARS SINCE the environmental and construction disaster at Ben Franklin/ SLA  which landed teachers and students in the hospital because the School District of Philadelphia ignored alarms sounded by families, staff, the Principal, students, and even contractors. In the resulting investigation conducted by the Office of the Inspector General, it was confirmed that The School District of Philadelphia’s negligence and lack of TRANSPARENCY led to the disaster. The District and Dr. Hite responded with an apology and a promise to do better but the District HAS NOT CHANGED its ways!

In total 11 schools were forced to close suddenly between September 2019 and February 2020 when asbestos exposure could no longer be swept under the rug.


A crumbling wal in Furness High School's auditorium.

Only a few months ago, Furness High School’s Principal courageously spoke out about dangerous conditions in his building saying his school looks like a “third world country”. This is an image of crumbling plaster and peeling paint inside the auditorium at Horace H. Furness High School in Philadelphia on May 18, 2021. Philadelphia Federation of Teachers Health and Welfare Fund

Because the School District of Philadelphia does not even tell us when there are hazards in our schools, we fear that there are many school communities that are wholly unaware of the asbestos hazards in their building. In fact, at Masterman we were told by District’s Director of Environmental Managements & Services (OEMS) in June 2018 that they “did not find any hazards associated with asbestos at Masterman”. It was when we were finally forced to file a FOIA request after years of failed attempts to get detailed information, that we discovered more than 100 areas of asbestos damage had been identified and required remediation – including several urgent imminent hazards.

The little information the District does share is highly edited and carefully selected.  It is a public relations approach designed to minimize serious hazardous situations and conditions. They self congratulate for the miles of asbestos they have removed, but don’t tell us at which schools, how much damaged asbestos remains, how much debris was left behind or how many asbestos fibers remain in the dust. Their legal department is always on hand to script responses and cover missteps. When called on their lies, the legal department recants and claims “misunderstandings of our request.” Like the time both the Chief Operating Officer and Director of OEMS told us separately, in writing, that asbestos inspection documents were “internal” and could not be shared. Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act (AHERA) documents ARE LEGALLY REQUIRED TO BE PUBLIC DOCUMENTS! Like so many others, we were forced to file a FOIA request to get the information that the District refused to share about conditions relating to the health and safety of our children! UNCONSCIONABLE!

Our fight is an urgent cry for immediate and enforced District OVERSIGHT and real COLLABORATION with stakeholders.  Currently there is no one holding the School District of Philadelphia ACCOUNTABLE.

The Masterman HSA Environmental Committee requested TESTING, TRANSPARENCY and COLLABORATION to address asbestos concerns at the school. The School District of Philadelphia’s response was:

This request is respectfully denied. The District cannot and will not agree to share decision-making authority.

In a separate response from the District to our request for full access in real time to environmental information, building conditions and hazards the District response was:

…the District will require some development time before being able to address the full scope of information that DoneSafe can contain, how it will be organized, and what, if anything, will be shared.

Our aging public school buildings are plagued with friable asbestos, mold, lead paint, rodent infestations and other toxins that pose serious health hazards to our children and our teachers. We want every child and teacher in the District to learn and teach in an environment free of toxins. These hazards can have potentially long term and catastrophic health effects. Safe buildings is a basic right of our public education system.

Send a clear message to the School District of Philadelphia and our city and state leaders. The HEALTH AND SAFETY of our students and teachers IS our TOP PRIORITY.  Take a minute to sign the petition and email blast to our elected officials.

Email Letter Campaign: https://actionnetwork.org/letters/demand-transparency-collaboration-accountability-safe-schools-from-the-school-district-of-philadelphia/

Petition: https://actionnetwork.org/petitions/demand-transparency-collaboration-accountability-safe-schools-from-the-school-district-of-philadelphia/

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