Our hearts are breaking over the death of beautiful 12 year old Bryant Elementary student Laporshia Massey, who died following an asthma attack that apparently started at school. We grieve for her entire family and the Bryant community.
According to the City Paper, Laporshia became ill during the school day. No nurse was scheduled. Laporshia called a family member, telling her repeatedly, “I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe.” A staff person drove the sixth grader home.
Seeing his daughter’s state when she arrived home at about 3:15 p.m., [father Daniel] Burch says, he immediately gave her medication and then rushed her to the hospital. She collapsed in the car, at which point Burch flagged down a passing ambulance in the middle of traffic. Burch says his daughter later died at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, which could not confirm any details, including the time of her arrival, due to privacy constraints.
“They told her school was almost out, and she’d get out of school and go straight home,” says one district source, who requested anonymity because she was not authorized to speak to the press. “She went to the teacher,” who told her “there’s no nurse, and just to be calm.”
In January 2012, the District moved to a 1:1500 nurse to student ratio, the maximum allowed by state law. Previously the District had held to a 1:750 nurse to student ratio, which still meant the majority of public schools lacked a full-time school nurse. Ratios are established by the Pennsylvania Department of Health, rather than the Department of Education.
The District currently has 179 school nurses serving 331 public, private and Catholic schools. Only 82 public schools have full-time nurses, according to a Philadelphia school nurse organizer; one Catholic school also has a full-time nurse, paid for from the District’s budget. The rest are allocated at the 1:1500 student ratio.
Last Spring the Education Law Center published a report on the school nurse shortage in Philadelphia noting:
70 percent reported medications and/or treatments were being administered by teachers or aides.
52 percent reported that children are not receiving urgent medical care.
36 percent stated that children do not receive their treatments at prescribed intervals.
30 percent noted that children do not receive evaluations for a disability in a timely manner.
The dire medical and health situation has become even more exacerbated this year by severe cuts in staffing, Most schools not only lack nurses, but any support or administrative staff to deal with crises. Schools have no clear protocol for how to handle a myriad of crises which have come up, whether it’s a lack of nurses, guidance counselors or other key adults. There are no crisis plans and no protocol on calling 911 or emergency help; in fact, in our experience, the District has actively dissuaded staff from calling 911 in emergency situations
[Clarification: This is the District's emergency policy formulated in 1998. Notice that only the most severe of situations warrants 911 service. Bone fractures and dislocations for example are NOT entitled to emergency care. Asthma and "wheezing" are not reasons to call 911 but an "acute asthma attack" is. The problem therefore is that without a medical professional on staff, how can untrained personnel determine the difference especially when the District policy requires medical knowledge to understand ? In other words, this is not about common sense. It's about medical training.]
In just the first month of school, unimaginable horrors have unfolded. Consider this incident involving 7-year-old Ja-Kye Robinson of Pennell Elementary. Ja-Kye suffered second degree burns on his face, where staff members applied ice (the opposite of what one is supposed to do in case of burns) and sent the boy home. His family rushed him to the emergency room.
Hundreds of parents have filed formal complaints with the state Department of Education, including families deeply concerned about children with serious health issues such as asthma, diabetes, and epilepsy. Here’s just a sampling of complaints filed with the state:
- A parent of an 11-year-old filed a complaint that her child is amblioptic in one eye, suffers from allergies which require specific medications, and worries about sending her child to school with untrained and insufficient staff to “oversee her mental welfare and medical conditions.”
- An advocate filed a complaint that a nurse left behind a “student with a head injury” in order to administer required medication to a student at another school.
- A parent of a 10 year old filed a complaint that his son requires regular asthma and other medications which must be administered daily at school by a trained professional. He has sent in notes and complaints from the child’s doctor about the situation.
- A parent of a fourth grader witnessed a classmate having an asthma attack playing outside at recess in the heat. The child was sent home because of the attack. No nurse was present and is only present one day per week
What happened at Bryant Elementary was not an extreme or surprising situation. Laporshia Massey was a sixth grader with serious asthma. There are hundreds like her in the school district. The horror lies with the state for denying the District adequate funding and it lies with the District for failing to put measures in place to protect Laporshia and all students in our public schools.
We have said this before: The lack of staffing due to a deliberate withholding of funding is not just a disgrace. It is dangerous and it is unsustainable.
To all those who knew and loved Laporshia Massey, we send our deepest prayers and our continued commitment to the struggle for justice in our schools.