Several Pennsylvania school officials were recently charged with felony child endangerment. The officials allegedly covered up asbestos and lead contamination. The former superintendent of the Scranton School District and two other officials were charged in early October.
Asbestos is a concern in aging schools across Pennsylvania. Buildings built before 1980 are likely to contain hazardous materials, such as asbestos or lead. These materials may be discovered during routine inspections or renovations. Covering up the presence of asbestos may result in health issues for students, faculty and staff.
Scranton, PA District Officials Hide Asbestos Contamination
Beginning in 2016, Scranton School District officials were notified of lead and asbestos in several schools. Officials notified included:
- Former superintendent Alexis Kirijan
- Former director of operations Jeffrey Brazil
- Maintenance supervisor Joseph Slack
Inspectors found asbestos in more than 70 locations in district buildings. The mineral was found in Scranton classrooms, restrooms and a cafeteria. Asbestos is common in schools built before 1980, which include many schools across the country.
District officials did nothing once notified of the environmental dangers. The officials did not remove the asbestos or large amounts of lead found in the drinking water. Inspectors found the same issues in their inspections in 2018 and 2019. Action to remedy these issues were only taken after two of the three officials left the district in 2019.
“Hiding the truth exposed Scranton schoolchildren to unsafe levels of lead in their water, and asbestos in their air, and these administrators’ failure to fix the problem broke the law,” Attorney General Josh Shapiro said at a press conference.
Shapiro went on to characterize this negligence as a “criminal act that endangered others entrusted in their care.”
PA School Officials Charged With Multiple Felonies
Kirijan, Brazil and Slack were charged with child endangerment, a felony. In total, 147 charges are being brought against the three officials, including 87 felonies.
“Their silence, their cover up, and their inaction now have consequences,” Shapiro said.
Shapiro said Kirijan and Brazil were notified of the asbestos and lead issues several times. However, they claimed the issues were fixed or did not notify people of them at all.
Shapiro noted Kirijan and Brazil willfully hid the danger from many groups of people, including:
- Principals and other school leaders
- School staff
The maximum sentence for the charges against the officials could include decades in prison.
These charges are particularly unique, Shapiro’s office noted. According to a spokesperson, instances where law enforcement files criminal charges against school officials are incredibly rare.
In addition to the felony charges, Scranton School District employees have filed a separate lawsuit about the asbestos contamination. The lawsuit claims officials knew of the unsafe levels of asbestos and lead and failed to disclose the information. The district is seeking to dismiss this suit.
Longstanding History of Asbestos Contamination Across PA Schools
The Scranton School District is not alone in its troubles with hazardous material contamination. The Philadelphia School District has also come under inspection for lead paint and damaged asbestos materials.
The Philadelphia School District has well-documented asbestos issues. On average, the district’s more than 200 schools are at least 70 years old. The cost of updating the aging school buildings to meet safety requirements is large. One estimate says the district has nearly $5 billion in unmet capital needs.
Asbestos Exposure at Philly Elementary Schools
In 2018, spot-tests to measure asbestos contamination revealed high levels of asbestos dust in Lewis C. Cassidy Elementary school.
One area tested was a patch of coat closet floor, where students often play. This area returned more than 4 million asbestos fibers per square centimeter. This is 50 times higher than settled dust after the 9/11 terror attacks.
In the last school year alone, 11 school buildings were closed due to asbestos problems. Students and teachers attending aging schools that have not shut down due to asbestos may still face dangerous exposure.
Donations Seek to Address Asbestos, Lead Concerns
The University of Pennsylvania announced a donation of $100 million to assist with lead removal and asbestos remediation in the Philadelphia School District. The donation will be paid over 10 years and is earmarked for environmental hazard removal.
This is the largest ever private donation to the Philadelphia School District. It comes directly from discretionary funds available to the university’s president, Amy Gutmann. The donation will not affect the school’s endowment.
“One hundred million dollars will go a long way to really restoring these schools and eliminating the toxins that are in the buildings,” said Jerry Jordan, president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers.
However, this donation will not cover the estimated $125 million it would take to make all Philadelphia city schools lead and asbestos-free.
There is no safe level of asbestos exposure. Students, teachers and staff continue to be at risk of developing mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases due to exposure from Pennsylvania schools.