“Budget crisis” is too tame a phrase to describe what’s happening in Philadelphia right now. The cuts hit bone. Nurses, counselors, teachers, lunchroom aides, assistant principals and librarians were eliminated. On Sept. 25, a sixth-grader named Laporshia Massey passed away after she suffered an asthma attack at school. Massey’s school didn’t have a nurse, and her family argued one could have saved their daughter’s life. In fact, during the budget crisis, school nurses warned that cuts to nursing staff would hurt student academic performance and endanger student safety. Three weeks after Massey’s death, amidst public outcry, Gov. Corbett released $45 million in state money to rehire some teachers, counselors and other support staff. Corbett had been withholding the money on the demand that the teachers union hand over further concessions in their contract standoff. When he released the funds, Corbett’s administration made sure to mention that he wasn’t doing it because of Massey.
The budget crisis in Philadelphia, in cutting as deep as it has, highlights the fact that schools are so much more than buildings that house desks and kids, and that education is much more than classroom learning and testing. Schools are lifelines in communities, often functioning as the hub in a neighborhood. Nurses, counselors, assistant principals, music teachers and librarians play crucial roles in sustaining those communities and keeping children afloat. Take counselors, for instance, who do so much more than settle class schedules and lay out college brochures. At the start of November, 80 counselors laid off in the midst of the crisis were returned to Philadelphia schools so that every high school will have at least one counselor, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported. But the damage was done for many students. Not having counselors around for nearly two months at the beginning of the school year left them without guides through the testing and college application maze. Some schools even declined to offer PSATs, which prep students for the SATs, because they didn’t have counselors to coordinate the tests.
Students are acutely aware that Corbett is investing in incarceration rather than education.
Your office made sure to let Philadelphia parents know that your decision to release the 45 million dollars was based on quote “improvements” to the district – which closed 23 schools this summer. You made sure Philly’s parents knew that your decision had nothing to do with the death of 12-year-old Laporshia Massey, who died in September after an asthma attack.
Her family claims that she may still be alive if there had been a nurse at the school to recognize her symptoms and get her medical help. We may never know what would have happened if there was a nurse there that day. But the case brought our attention – the nation’s attention – to the sad state of Philly schools.
The money will not be used to rehire any of the more than 100 school nurses the district has let go in the past two years. As your administration said, Philly schools meet the minimum allowable by state law – one nurse per 1,500 students.
And that’s enough, apparently.
This is in a city where 22% of children have had asthma in their short lives – and more than half have ended up in the emergency room because of it. It’s the highest rate in the state. And asthma rates are worse among black children and poor children and inner city children across the country.
Governor, open your eyes to the fact that kids in Philly public schools – disproportionately black and poor – are needier than most. That means they need. More. More from you. And not just the bare minimum required. If we want these kids to have a chance at becoming happy, healthy, employed, taxpaying residents of the commonwealth of Pennsylvania, shouldn’t we acknowledge that they need more to get there?
At a bare minimum, we need to know what happened at Bryant Elementary School. Without knowing the facts, the School District of Philadelphia exonerated its staff:
Because we want to ensure the safety of all children, it is paramount that we find out what happened to cause this tragic death. We are doing what is necessary to investigate what happened, and we are cooperating with all involved city and state agencies, as we always do, upon the death of one of our students. From our review to date, we are certain that our staff at Bryant are not the cause of the student’s death, and we will continue to address all concerns arising out of this tragedy.
Bryant is in Sen. Anthony Williams’ district. In a letter to Superintendent William Hite Jr., he called for a formal inquiry and public accounting:
Given that this is the second disturbing and high-profile circumstance to strike this school community within the past year, as the representative of this area – and as a neighbor – I am now asking you to formalize the inquiry and report out the results publicly.
My expectation is that such an investigation, coordinated with the police and district attorney, would reveal what issues and circumstances resulted in the child’s death, detailing if there are any elements of negligence, or, even criminal culpability. These are questions swirling around this community, throughout Philadelphia, and beyond. At a bare minimum, the community should be made abreast of the findings, for it certainly deserves answers, within the bounds of the law. While I recognize this is a somewhat unusual request, based on how things are normally conducted, the level of scrutiny in this matter warrants it.
Three weeks ago, 12-year-old Laporshia Massey suffered an asthma attack while at school. That should be the end of the story. Sadly, it isn’t. There was no school nurse on duty that day. Laporshia was sent home. Within hours, the sixth grader from West Philly was dead.
While the family and the School District of Philadelphia dispute the circumstances leading up to her death, the fact is we’ll never know whether a school nurse would have recognized the severity of her condition.
It’s also a fact that more than 30 percent of children between the ages of 5 to 12 in West Philly have been diagnosed with asthma. So it’s reasonable to expect another child will suffer an asthma attack or otherwise get sick while at school. If there’s no nurse on duty, will school officials rely on a child’s own diagnosis of her condition to determine whether to call 911?
Later today, the Philadelphia School District Nurses will hold a silent candlelight vigil for Laporshia.
Justice for Laporshia Massey dictates that we remain vigilant lest her tragic death is swept under the rug.