Philadelphia Teachers Sue Over Right to Protest Asbestos Hazards

Legislation & Litigation

Three educators filed a federal lawsuit against the School District of Philadelphia over their first amendment right to publicly demand answers about asbestos inside classrooms. The suit claims their rights were violated when the district allegedly punished them for a protest in 2021.

Plaintiffs include teachers Ethan Tannen and Carolyn Gray, as well as now retired educator Karen Celli. Along with 50 of their colleagues, they worked outdoors during two teacher workdays at Julia R. Masterman Laboratory and Demonstration School in protest of asbestos exposure risks.

School administrators allegedly told staff they would face disciplinary action for unauthorized leave, including lost wages, if they did not go inside the building. Mary Catherine Roper, the teachers’ lawyer, says the educators were not absent from their jobs. 

“Those teachers were not ‘absent.’ The district knew that and knew they were working,” Roper wrote in a statement released to the press. “The district wanted to stop the protest, so they threatened the teachers and then punished them. That violates the First Amendment.”

Asbestos Risks in Philadelphia Schools

The protest at the heart of the lawsuit aimed to raise awareness about the dangers of asbestos in U.S. schools. Philadelphia schools have been at the heart of significant controversy over the last few years as the district grapples with legacy asbestos in its facilities.

The Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act report covering the 2018-2019 school term documents more than 100 asbestos sources inside the Masterman building. Teachers said they felt unsafe inside the building and reportedly accused the district of mismanaging the issue.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that there are asbestos-containing materials in most of the nation’s primary, secondary and charter schools. Aging school buildings can contain asbestos products, which were once widely used, such as ceiling tiles, floor tiles, insulation, cement sheets and wallboards.

Inhaling or ingesting microscopic asbestos fibers can cause asbestosis, lung cancer and malignant mesothelioma. Risks of developing asbestos-related diseases increase with prolonged exposure.

Philadelphia School Asbestos Lawsuits

The current lawsuit centers on claims that the school superintendent at the time, William R. Hite Jr., and then-acting principal Marge Neff allegedly told the Masterman teachers that the building was safe and they must go inside. Teachers who continued to work outside received “Unauthorized Leave Without Pay” notices and were docked money from their paychecks.

The district denied grievances filed through the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers. The suit seeks to expunge the disciplinary notice and for the plaintiffs to receive pay with interest and compensatory damages.

This suit isn’t the first related to asbestos in Philadelphia schools. The Philadelphia School District sued the City of Philadelphia over implementation of its 2022 law concerning oversight and management of environmental hazards. Both parties recently announced a settlement after months of negotiations.

A statement issued from the Law Department, Office of the Mayor, notes: “In the Settlement Agreement, the District has affirmed it will inspect all school buildings twice annually and post reports from those inspections online in a timely manner. The terms of the Agreement also allocate $2.5 million from the Philadelphia Department of Public Health to the District to improve data management associated with environmental hazard reporting.”

Commenting on the settlement, city officials agreed this was a step in the right direction to help ensure the safety of students and staff. Mediator, Mark Aronchick, played a key role in the settlement process.

“We’re glad to see this case is settling,” Council President Darrell L. Clarke remarked. “The whole point of the ordinance was to ensure accountability by the District and safety for students and teachers from asbestos exposure. We’re gratified that the District will take steps through this settlement to achieve the original goals of the ordinance.”

Council member Isaiah Thomas added, “Through the pandemic and ongoing asbestos issues, the need for safe school buildings has never been more clear. I’m glad this lawsuit has been settled so we can properly get all buildings inspected and bring our school facilities to a modern, safe place.”

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