Her name is Laporshia Massey and our hearts are breaking

Laporshia Massey
(Photo: City Paper via family of LaPorshia Massey)

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.

11 thoughts on “Her name is Laporshia Massey and our hearts are breaking

  1. Deeply saddened by this tragedy, us parent advocates are dedicated and determined to find a solution to these dangerous scenarios. My prayers go out to the family of LaPorshia.

  2. My heart goes out to the family. I understand the stress of having a child with asthma. I thank God every day for caring health professionals. This is an unbearable loss. My prayers are with you.

  3. So when will every parent speak up. Most of all when will the media care enough to publish the truth.THE DISTRICT HAS MONEY TO PAY ITS LEADERS TO DO NOTHING.I HAVE THE JOB DESCRIPTIONS AND SALARIES!!!!!!. Its not the governor, its the mayor and superintendent!!!!! I can prove it!!!!!


    1. Thanks for your comment. Parents are speaking up about this and have been for a while. The media wrote the story about this tragedy. Daniel Denvir and others are doing good work. And for the record, there is not one single area to blame. It IS the governor. We have also worked to hold the mayor and superintendent accountable as well. Parents are extremely grounded in the reality of our schools. After all we volunteer and send our children there. We do need to be strategic however and start to focus our energies in targeted ways, not just shout to the wind.

  4. Can we consider a day of outrage in Philadelphia over the unnecessary and preventable death of a 12 year old student? We need to do something to shake things up and prevent this from happening again. We need to know that without our collective action – it will happen again.

  5. Years ago, I overrode my principal and called 911 for a student who was considered to be faking an asthma attack. I went to the ER with this child, and a team of 13 doctors, nurses, and other hospital personnel soon surrounded the child with a frightening array of life-saving equipment. He survived, after spending more that a week at St. Chris’s, mostly in the ICU.

    I was resented for my interference and treated like an outcast who had broken a code. This was an experience I had numerous times, whenever I insisted that a suicidal kid be referred for help or an abuse case be reported to DHS.

    Part of the problem is that many administrators feel that asking for help proves that they are not in control of their building. Another problem is that the more diminished our resources become, the more isolated we are, and we shut down. We don’t admit that the problems we can’t handle even exist.

    In the case of this poor child, it is clear than common sense and kindness are no substitute for professional evaluation.

    I know the staff at Bryant feels awful about this. I don’t know why no one called 911, but I do know that feeling of not being allowed to do what one knows is right. It happens at many schools. I don’t know if it happened here, but the fact that an aide stepped in to drive this kid suggests that there was some discomfort among the staff about the treatment of this little girl.

    Sad, sad story.

  6. First, God bless Laporshia. However, no matter what the money issues and nursing staff issues, there is NO excuse for someone not calling 911. I am even more angry and puzzled that no one dialed 911 knowing that there was no nurse in the building. Common sense – when someone is having trouble breathing, CALL 911!

    1. One of the issues and problems we are exploring is that the District’s medical emergency policy is extraordinarily confusing. First, it hasn’t changed since 1998 when there was a school nurse in most school buildings. Second, 911 is reserved for “life threatening” situations only. Again, as we added above: an “acute asthma attack” is a reason to call 911. “Asthma and wheezing” is not a reason to call 911.

      I am sure there isn’t a single staff person at Bryant Elementary who isn’t torn up over this. It wasn’t about common sense. The more likely – and more dangerous – scenario is that medically untrained personnel are being thrown into making life or death decisions. This is why in most functioning school districts, school nurses are essential.

  7. A child’s life can indeed hinge on whether there’s a nurse at a school at a crucial moment. Our family was lucky. My heart too breaks at Laporshia’s story. Here’s what I wrote in the Charlotte Observer: http://www.charlotteobserver.com/2013/10/19/4397908/a-village-rescued-my-child-other.html.

    When the call came, my hands were buried in the dirt of Shamrock Gardens Elementary’s butterfly garden. It was Alfea Gibson, the nurse at Randolph Middle School. My son, Parker, was having trouble breathing. She thought I ought to come.

    Parker has always had bad seasonal allergies, so it didn’t sound alarming. I suggested that if he rested, he might feel better. Somewhat reluctantly, she hung up. I stuck my hands back in the dirt.

    Then the phone rang again. Parker wasn’t getting better, she said. Someone needed to come.

    It wasn’t a seasonal allergy. It was a sudden, possibly life-threatening attack. He’d never had anything like that before. We still don’t know what caused it.

    When my husband reached the school, a fire engine sat out front. Parker had an oxygen mask over his face. His skin had turned bright red, and his blood pressure was low.

    An ambulance arrived. Paramedics swooped in, added a shot of Benadryl to the epinephrine Ms. Gibson had already administered, and rolled him out on a gurney. By the time he reached the emergency room, the worst had passed.

    Philadelphia student Laporshia Massey was not so lucky. A week before Parker’s attack, Laporshia’s father got a call that she was having trouble breathing. Like me, he didn’t realize how serious it was.

    Laporshia’s school had no nurse that day. Philadelphia’s school emergency policy states that staff should call 911 only in especially serious situations. Apparently, to untrained eyes, Laporshia’s didn’t seem to qualify.

    When Laporshia got home, her father realized how sick she really was, and rushed her to the car. She collapsed on the way to the hospital. Soon after, she took her final, labored breath. She was 12 years old, just like Parker.

    My child was rescued by a village.

    First, by the people who cared for him that day: Ms. Gibson, the firemen, the paramedics, the emergency room staff.

    Second, by the people who have spent years lobbying Mecklenburg County commissioners to increase the number of nurses in our schools.

    Third, by everyone who pays city and county taxes, which fund ambulances, fire departments and school nurses.

    Thank you, all of you, for being there when my son needed you. I only wish you could have been there for Laporshia too.

    I don’t know what would have happened if a nurse hadn’t been at Randolph the day Parker had his attack. I do know we were lucky Ms. Gibson was there. Last year, Randolph had a nurse only three days a week. Many CMS schools are in the same situation.

    Each day, when parents send children off to school, we have to trust that measures are in place to keep them safe. The unspeakable tragedies of school shootings have led to the purchase of cameras, locks and fencing, and sparked the suggestion that all schools should employ armed security officers.

    Given the choice, I would trade all that for a full-time nurse. The teeming world of microbes is far larger and far more ruthless than the small pool of human beings sick enough to harm children at school.

    State legislators, county commissioners, parents, community members, I urge all of you to keep working to increase funding for school nurses. We need to learn from the tragedy of Laporshia Massey, not repeat it.

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