Pennsylvania Students Put at Risk After Asbestos Contamination Cover-up

Asbestos // January 21, 2021
Pennsylvania School Empty Classroom

Officials at a Pennsylvania school district were notified of asbestos and lead contamination in several schools. The district’s officials did not clean up the contaminated areas or alert the community.

As a result, students and staff were at risk of exposure. Asbestos and lead exposure may cause serious health issues. The school’s officials were later charged with multiple crimes, including child endangerment

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Asbestos and Lead Were Found in Multiple Scranton Schools

Beginning in 2016, inspectors identified asbestos in several locations in the Scranton School District. Dangerous levels of asbestos were found in 74 locations across the district. These locations included classrooms, restrooms and a cafeteria.

Asbestos was commonly used in the construction of schools and other buildings before the 1980s. Asbestos-containing materials are not considered dangerous when intact. However, asbestos fibers may become airborne as building materials age and break apart.

According to asbestos testing completed in 2019, 15 of the 74 areas identified as containing asbestos in 2016 got worse in the three years.

Inspectors also found lead contamination in the school’s water. The lead was identified in water from drinking fountains and sinks in at least 10 schools.

Building inspections at the Scranton School District were conducted again in 2018 and 2019. Inspectors found more contaminated water. Additionally, 90% of previously identified asbestos was still present.

Pennsylvania School Administrators Ignored Asbestos and Lead Contamination

Three Scranton School District officials were notified of the dangerous contaminants. The officials took no action. These officials were:

  • Former Superintendent Alexis Kirijan
  • Former Director of Operations Jeffrey Brazil
  • Maintenance Supervisor Joseph Slack

Inspectors notified Alex Kirijan and Jeffrey Brazil several times of the environmental issues. Additionally, Joseph Slack was directed to turn off the contaminated water sources. He never did.

The school officials never alerted the community about the asbestos. They also led the public to believe the lead-contaminated water had been fixed.

Action was finally taken in 2019 after Kirijan and Brazil left the district. The district’s new administrators immediately:

  • Disconnected contaminated water sources
  • Closed asbestos-ridden buildings for maintenance

School Officials Charged With Child Endangerment and Other Felonies

Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro charged Kirijan, Brazil and Slack with 143 crimes, including 87 felonies. The officials were arrested because they failed to act and lied to the community.

The three officials were all charged with:

  • Endangering the welfare of children
  • Recklessly endangering another person

Attorney General Shapiro said these officials chose to keep the public in the dark and put people in danger.

“The willful coverup of the lead and asbestos problems throughout the Scranton School District during the former superintendent’s and chief operating officer’s time in leadership was, as the grand jury decided, criminal.” -Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro

If found guilty, Kriijan, Brazil and Slack could face decades in prison. The Scranton School District is also facing a federal lawsuit related to the environmental dangers from current and former school employees.

Students and Staff Put in Danger for Years

Kirijan, Brazil and Slack put students, teachers and staff at risk of lead and asbestos exposure. Students and teachers did not know about contaminated water sources and damaged asbestos.

If students or staff came into contact with asbestos-containing materials, they may have inhaled asbestos fibers. Asbestos exposure can lead to serious illnesses, such as:

Asbestos-related diseases may take many years to develop. If students were exposed to asbestos, they may develop an illness in adulthood.

Lead poisoning may also cause health issues for children and adults. As a result of lead poisoning, children may experience:

  • Developmental delays
  • Learning difficulties
  • Loss of appetite
  • Weight loss
  • Hearing loss
  • Seizures

Adults can also experience high blood pressure, difficulty concentrating, headaches and other issues from lead exposure.

It’s not clear how many students and staff in the Scranton district were impacted by asbestos or lead exposure.

Scranton Parents and Staff Start Environmental Task Force

To improve future transparency and communication, the Scranton community created an environmental task force. The environmental task force will help create long-term safety plans for the district.

The task force includes a board of appointed parents. It will also include representatives from the:

  • Teachers union
  • Maintenance union
  • District administration

In the future, the group will provide a way to hold school district officials accountable for environmental safety issues, such as asbestos exposure.

Recently, Scranton School District students have been attending school remotely due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The task force will ensure buildings are safe when students return.

Asbestos Is an Ongoing Issue in Pennsylvania Schools

The Scranton School District is one of several Pennsylvania school districts dealing with asbestos hazards. Asbestos-containing materials were once commonly used to build schools.

In the Philadelphia School District, many of the school buildings are at least 70 years old. These schools may have never undergone asbestos abatement.

Within the Philadelphia district, Benjamin Franklin High School recently discovered asbestos during a construction project. The asbestos was discovered after students and staff complained of dusty conditions inside the school.

Last year, 11 school buildings in the district shut down due to asbestos hazards. Construction to fix the asbestos issues eventually cost the Philadelphia School District more than $50 million.

Philadelphia School District superintendent William R. Hite Jr. said it would cost $125 million to make all of the city’s schools asbestos- and lead-free.

Penn Donation Will Help Improve Philadelphia Schools

The University of Pennsylvania said it will donate $100 million to the Philadelphia School District to fix environmental hazards. The donation will be paid to the district over the next 10 years.

The goal of the donation is to create safe buildings for students and faculty. The donations may help decrease future asbestos and lead concerns.