Anger, confusion reign at North Philly school plagued by asbestos

District officials thought they had a plan to deal with exposed asbestos at a North Philly school — until parents rose up against it.

T.M. Pierce School in North Philadelphia (Avi Wolfman-Arent/WHYY)

T.M. Pierce School in North Philadelphia (Avi Wolfman-Arent/WHYY)

For the second time this school year, a community meeting to address asbestos exposure in a Philadelphia school devolved amid anger and confusion.

The scene this time was T.M. Peirce, a K-6 school in North Philadelphia where disturbed asbestos prompted officials to cordon off the school’s basement.

District administrators called a parent meeting Monday to present a plan that would have kept students in the building while workers remediated the basement. That plan included wheeling large, temporary bathrooms into the school yard to replace bathrooms shut down during the remediation process.

But Peirce parents — aggrieved over what they see as poor communication and a slow response — barely let district officials speak during a cacophonous, 90-minute meeting. By the meeting’s end, those officials vowed to reconsider their proposal and look into the possibility of moving students to an entirely different site.

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Peirce parents expressed their anger and feelings of betrayal with school district leaders.

“Don’t say y’all understand us! You don’t understand us,” said Tamitra Foreman, who has a fifth-grade daughter at Peirce. “Do your kid go to an unsafe school?”

Monday’s meeting comes more than a month after teachers first raised concerns about exposed asbestos in the school’s gymnasium, as first reported by the Philadelphia Inquirer. Teachers at Peirce told a union official about possible asbestos contamination on September 16th, according to the Inquirer. The officials relayed those concerns to district officials. Among the most pressing concerns was the presence of frayed asbestos in the school gymnasium, a space where student activity could knock deadly fibers free.

Parents said they didn’t know about the potential asbestos contamination, and many criticized the district for failing to address the issue promptly when first notified about it.

“Y’all failed,” said Foreman. “Y’all dropped the ball.”

The unfolding drama at T.M. Peirce is the latest asbestos-related controversy for a school district plagued with facilities woes — and bombarded with questions about its decision-making.

Students at Benjamin Franklin High School and Science Leadership Academy (SLA) missed weeks of classes after officials discovered exposed asbestos in their shared school building. Community members from both schools criticized the district’s first proposed solution to the problem and accused officials of ignoring the school’s environmental woes until SLA, a magnet school, moved in.

Parents at T.M. Peirce say they’ve also been treated inequitably.

After a teacher at a more affluent school in South Philadelphia revealed she has a form of cancer caused by asbestos exposure, the district started to remediate within two days. By contrast, it took more than a month — and a heavy dose of news coverage — to prompt action at Peirce, where the student body is majority-Black and low-income.

“If we was white they would have shut [the school] down,” said Charmaine Mitchell, whose fifth-grader attends Peirce.

District officials say the optics don’t match the reality. They told WHYY that Peirce is currently safe to attend. They admitted that the asbestos response was slower than they’d like, due to chronic underfunding and understaffing at the district’s environmental office. But they say the process was largely the same as the procedure carried out at other, wealthier schools.

For years, district leaders have said they don’t have the money to fix billions in deferred maintenance. They say decades of underfunding, combined with aging school buildings, has left the district with dire capital needs.

Thosel arguments, however, are unlikely to pacify fed-up parents. Many vowed on Monday they wouldn’t send their children to school until the district found an alternative site.

“Put me in jail. Fine me. He’s not coming,” said Mitchell of her son.

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