STUDENT DEATH: Laporshia Massey, 12, a student at Bryant Elementary School, became ill at school and died later that day.
Sixth-grader Laporshia Massey died from asthma complications, according to her father, who says he rushed her to the emergency room soon after she got home from school on the afternoon of Sept. 25. He says Laporshia had begun to feel ill earlier that day at Bryant Elementary School, where a nurse is on staff only two days a week. This day was not one of those days.
Daniel Burch, Laporshia’s father, is angry and wants to know whether Philadelphia’s resource-starved school district failed to save his daughter’s life.
“If she had problems throughout the day, why … didn’t [the school] call me sooner?” asks Burch.
He told City Paper that he received a call, from someone he assumed was the nurse, informing him that his 12-year-old daughter was sick. Burch, recovering from his own asthma troubles the night before, was sleepy — but believes it was near the end of the school day. His fianceé, Sherri Mitchell, was walking her younger children home from school when she too received a call from Bryant. Mitchell, who volunteers at the school, said Laporshia told her, “I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe.”
But neither Burch nor Mitchell realized how serious the situation was. Burch, who told his daughter they would take care of her symptoms when she got home, believes that a trained professional would have seen the danger. “Why,” he asks, “didn’t [the school] take her to the hospital?”
Seeing his daughter’s state when she arrived home at about 3:15 p.m., 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.”
Mitchell, who says she doesn’t know if the school was aware of Laporshia’s asthma, contends that the first time she heard of her trouble was after 2 p.m. After school let out, a school staff member drove Laporshia home, according to her father and other sources.
“Once she got home, it wasn’t like she walked in here like she was [just a little] sick,” says Mitchell. “She ran up the steps and got on the [nebulizer] machine because she knew the procedures of what she needed to do to save her life.”
The District source believes that Laporshia’s life could have been saved if the school had responded appropriately to her illness. “If they had called rescue, she would still be here today,” the source said.
According to District rules, the principal or a designated person “must act promptly to provide immediate care” once they have received “notification of an ill or injured person.”
The School District of Philadelphia, long underfunded and now reeling from budget cuts implemented by Gov. Tom Corbett, has nearly 3,000 fewer staff members than it did in June. Today, there are 179 nurses working in public, private and parochial schools, down from 289 in 2011. (The District did not provide the ratio of nurses to students in its schools as of press time.)
Bryant Elementary did not have a full-time nurse last year, either.
After the initial cuts, one protesting nurse specifically warned that other staff were not competent to deal with asthmatic students in her absence. This year, Parents United for Public Education and the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia have compiled a list of complaints filed with the state Secretary of Education, including those having to do with health and safety — some of which were made by parents worried for their asthmatic children.
The District’s large population of students living in poverty already face numerous barriers to quality health care.
“Without the school nurse, at a minimum, persistent errors in judgment will result in a child getting a substandard education,” says school nurse Eileen Duffey. “In worst-case scenarios, life-threatening conditions may surface while a child is in school and go unnoticed.”
It is unclear what time Laporshia first complained of feeling ill. District spokesperson Fernando Gallard, citing confidentiality requirements, said that he could not provide any details. Last week, a school police officer at Bryant said that Principal Paulette Gaddy had instructed him to escort this reporter from the property.
Pennsylvania Department of Health spokesperson Holli Senior told City Paper that the agency reached out to Bryant to offer assistance in reviewing Laporshia’s death, something it recommends “in certain situations to ensure that they did what they were supposed to do, in the order that they were supposed to do it.”
But, Senior says, “the school indicated that they did not require any assistance at this time” and the Department does not have “the authority to get involved any further at this point.”
Approached at the girl’s funeral on Monday, School District Family and Community Engagement Chief Evelyn Sample-Oates said that the District was investigating the matter, but that she did not have any details. Jerry Jordan, president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, which also represents school nurses, says he cannot say what contributed to the student’s death. But he believes the shortage of nurses is dangerous.
“We will never know whether or not having had a full-time nurse in the building would of been able to save her life. But what we do know is that there was not a nurse at the time of her illness to — based on the training nurses have — determine whether or not the child was in crisis, and seek medical attention from a hospital,” Jordan said.
State Rep. Ron Waters, a Bryant alumnus whose West Philadelphia district includes the school, says that the School District should review whether protocol was followed. But he believes the budget cuts orchestrated by Gov. Corbett must also be questioned.
“We don’t have the people in place in the schools right now that can provide necessary services to our students,” said Waters. “At the end of the day, there’s only but so much that any building can provide if it has to deal with a skeleton operation. So, I will continue to fight this administration, and continue to fight to make sure that the services that our children deserve are provided.”
Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell called the situation “very sad.” She asked: “Without school nurses, she didn’t feel well, where could she go? You got to call emergency when you think it’s at that point.”