A beloved 7-year-old child from Jackson Elementary School died yesterday, but don’t call it a tragedy. Tragedies are for things outside your control, things we couldn’t possibly predict, and for which we have no warning.
Tragedy is not the right word when this is the second child to die who was in a school without a school nurse. Tragedy is not the right word when the District creates a policy by which only students pre-determined as “medically fragile” are entitled to a full-time nurse. Tragedy is not the right word when Jackson Elementary until five years ago had a nurse five days a week. Today? They see her six days a month.
Tragedy is not the right word when the Department of Health requires schools to have a medical team and emergency health plan, and our District’s plan is to cross its fingers and call 911. Tragedy is not the right word when the District presents public budgets that ensure a dangerous level of staffing even as they beg for hundreds of millions of dollars in funding.
Let's be clear: The losses of essential staff at schools are not just budget cuts. These are human-rights abuses happening to our own children on our watch.
Call it willful neglect. Call it child endangerment. But don’t call it a tragedy.
A tragedy is what happened at a middle school in Mount Laurel where an 8th grader died following a physical education class. On staff were two nurses plus a medical aide for a school of 1,000 students. That school had the capacity to send a medical team into action to try and save the life of that student.
At Jackson, we saw a school without such options, dependent on the skills of random volunteers and adults who might be in the building that day.
Between those two schools is a world of difference and intent.
The fact of the matter is that the School Reform Commission and District leadership have refused to create or uphold a budget and vision for schools that keeps our children safe – and they continue to do so today.
Last year, when the District and SRC voted to pass a “doomsday budget,” hundreds of parents, teachers, students, and school nurses warned of the disastrous fallout of stripping schools of so many personnel. This fall, parents from 90-plus schools filed over 800 formal complaints with the state's Department of Education about a lack of services in schools. A significant number of complaints focused on lack of school nurses, triggering an investigation and ultimately the restoration in late January of school nurses at a handful of schools. The District was no friend in the investigation, denying that students lacked access to adequate care. Even now, they seek to evade obligations within labor contracts for required staffing .
After the tragic death of LaPorshia Massey, a beautiful 12-year-old at Bryant Elementary, in September, did the District alter its practices to provide even a basic medical emergency plan in schools? Did it prioritize nurses in its newly dubbed “empty shell” budget? No.
When a school staff member had their skull fractured at Bartram High School this winter – a school that has lost one-third of its staff in the last two years – how many SRC members stood up and ripped the budget they passed? Not one.
What has happened to our schools is a situation that was set in motion by the current District and SRC leadership – while the elected officials who put them there watched. We have done little to correct its momentum since.
A brief glimmer of hope occurred last summer when Superintendent William Hite contemplated refusing to open schools without more resources. A collective cheer went up across the city. That was the last sign of courage from District leaders who know full well the consequences of operating schools without a safe level of staffing. Our children and our schools have paid an unspeakable price since.
We are not engaged in the practice of education anymore. We are engaging in a sick social experiment where we strip every imaginable resource from young children and adults, then sit back and watch what happens. We blame young adults at Bartram when chaos erupts, we mull ridiculous questions about whether nurses matter in a life or death situation. But we don’t fundamentally question the structure District leadership and the SRC have designed, endorsed, and sold.
Our District leaders and SRC commissioners have only one option. Present a budget that calls for safe levels of staffing in every school and refuse to open or operate schools otherwise.
If they cannot, the entire District leadership – Superintendent Hite, Paul Kihn, Matthew Stanski, and Karyn Lynch – as well as the entire School Reform Commission should submit their resignations.
It's time for "accountability" from those who so often demand it from others. The true powers behind them – the governor, the mayor and City Council – have delayed, bickered, blustered, and failed to deliver on a central responsibility regarding our children’s future.
No longer. Our children and families will not be the only ones held accountable for the unspeakable conditions in our schools. The time for polite conversation is over.
Superintendent Hite and the SRC: Take a stand now – or resign.
Helen Gym is a founder of Parents United for Public Education.
The opinions expressed are solely those of the author.