How Many More? Our Response to Recent Student Death

Yesterday, we received the news that a seven-year old boy collapsed at his school and was pronounced dead hours later. There was no nurse on duty. His south Philadelphia school, Andrew Jackson Elementary, only has a nurse on Thursdays and every other Friday.

We send our deepest condolences to his parents, family and friends. We send our thoughts and strength to the staff and bereavement counselors at Jackson today. We send warm embraces to his peers who will be wondering what happened to their fellow classmate. We only wish that this Thursday could have been like any other for your school.

It is with great sadness, but not much surprise, that we reflect on this tragedy. This is a tragedy that not only may have been prevented, but is also a real manifestation of the true priorities of those in power who ultimately make decisions that do not allow all young people to flourish and succeed in safe and well-resourced schools.

After 12-year-old Laporshia Massey died in October after an asthma related illness, we heard the cries of students, parents and teachers saying “We told you so” to Superintendent Hite and the School District of Philadelphia. Massey’s school, Bryant Elementary, only has a nurse two days of the week. Students and the community warned district leaders about what would happen if schools continued to be underfunded and without full-time nurses. We warned them that Massey’s life would not be the only one lost. And we were right.

These young people’s lives were forever taken from us because of the choices made by Superintendent Hite and the School District of Philadelphia coupled with the failure from the Governor’s office to provide adequate funding. In the name of “cost-cutting”, laying off hundreds of nurses in recent years, the District has effectively told the young people of Philadelphia that they would rather save money than save their lives. They made a choice to under-staff schools; the students and staff of Jackson Elementary did not have the luxury of choice when it came to their lack of a nurse.

The very individuals who have been tasked with keeping our young people safe have failed yet again. Governor Corbett and Superintendent Hite now carry with them the weight of another young life lost to a school system that is fundamentally unprepared to educate or ensure safety. When the budget cuts came, the District had choices to make about where they spent their money and where they cut; cutting nurses was not the right choice. It is obvious to all now that district leaders have not only failed at providing a basic education to the city’s students, but they also have not provided a safe facility.

Since Governor Corbett took office in 2011, the number of nurses working in Philadelphia schools has gone from 289 to 179. There are hundreds of thousands of young people in Philadelphia’s schools. With the approaching school year being overshadowed by threats of more layoffs from the school district, we do not see how we can continue to attend schools that are unsafe. Our schools have been neglected and underfunded for decades, never more so than under Governor Corbett. They tell us that there is no money for schools, nurses, or counselors, and yet they can find the money to construct new prisons and create tax breaks for wealthy corporations. Governor Corbett’s priorities have never been more brightly illuminated than in the dark shadow of this young boy’s death.

Theses buildings which can hardly be called schools, but rather crumbling edifices that house young people throughout the day, are not only under-resourced they are dangerous. The actions of those in power that allow these buildings to remain dangerous are none other than criminal. And yet, we do not see these leaders, who are making these choices, being held accountable.

How many more deaths will it take until they are held accountable? We say none. There will be no more lives taken from us. Because we, too, have a choice to make.

How can we expect any student to go to school after this tragedy or for any parent to send their child to school with confidence that they will return to their arms at the end of the day? To deny education in this way, by housing students in unsafe buildings day after day, is a violation of the human rights of the young people of Philadelphia. We will hold those in power accountable for these criminal acts. We demand the resignation of Superintendent Hite and Governor Corbett in light of his deep failure to save the lives of children by denying them access to a nurse every day of the week. We demand that the SRC resign their positions immediately as their actions, too, are implicit in this death.

Our choice is clear to us: Stay out of the schools until they are safe. We demand the full reinstitution of nurses to every public school in Philadelphia for the remainder of the year and all the school years to come. Until then, we refuse to accept the excuses from Governor Corbett, Superintendent Hite, and the SRC. No matter how they will eventually attempt to distance themselves from this tragedy, we know that their political and financial choices are the real reason we have lost these two young people. We will accept nothing less than their resignation and a full funding formula.

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