Class Says Scranton Schools Turned Blind Eye to Asbestos

SCRANTON, Pa. (CN) — A month after the Scranton School District closed four sites over asbestos dangers, a principal, teacher and maintenance worker brought a federal class action alleging that the problem was known for years.

Represented by the Philadelphia firm Saltz Mongeluzzi, principal Albert O’Donnell, eighth-grade instructor Rebecca O’Brien and recently retired janitor George Gevaras filed the suit Friday in the Middle District of Pennsylvania.

Children participate in the 2017 three-on-three City Championship at Northeast Scranton Intermediate School. (SCRSD photo)

In addition to current and former employees, the trio seek to represent a class of parents, students and all other people who spent time in Scranton schools between 2016 and the present.

The complaint says 2016 is when the district received test results from environmental engineers at Guzek Associates that “identified asbestos problems in various schools.”

“Despite the conclusions of the 2016 Guzek report and threat to the health and safety of the teachers, staff, and children, no one from the district or school board bothered to act until January 2020,” the complaint states.

In addition to airborne asbestos, the plaintiffs say lead in the drinking water caused the district to close four schools — Northeast Intermediate, William Prescott Elementary, Willard Elementary and Robert Morris Elementary — on Jan. 27.

The complaint notes that all the schools except for Northeast Intermediate have since reopened, but the district has not been forthcoming about what was done to remediate the problems.

Meanwhile the district placed warnings at 38 sinks and water fountains district-wide about lead levels above the actionable amount of 0.015 mg/l.

In a statement, class counsel Patrick Howard says Scranton “knew or should have known that all but four of SSD’s 18 school buildings posed serious health dangers.”

Pictures of deteriorating conditions in two classrooms at Northeast Intermediate, where plaintiff O’Brien works as a reading specialist, are included in the 53-page complaint. O’Donnell works at Prescott, and Gevaras served multiple schools during his 16-year career the district, which included scraping paint and plaster and removing old insulation.

“Gevaras believes and therefore avers that he was repeatedly exposed to asbestos and lead in unsafe and dangerous levels, notwithstanding the fact that district officials never warned or otherwise informed him of the presence of asbestos and lead,” the complaint states.

Howard, the attorney, said the district should be held accountable for failing to protect Scranton’s schools from asbestos, a known carcinogen, and lead, which can cause serious brain damage among other maladies.

“When the children of Scranton needed them the most, the defendants turned their backs on them and ignored the reports of widespread environmental dangers,” Howard said in a statement. “We will argue for class certification to give every individual exposed since 2016 to asbestos and lead in the District, the best chance at a healthy life by providing intensive, precision medical monitoring by highly qualified healthcare professionals.”

The plaintiffs seek damages as well as a special fund that would be used to provide comprehensive medical surveillance for students and staffers who were exposed to the schools’ elevated asbestos and lead levels. The district is estimated to have more than 10,000 students and more than 1,100 faculty and staff members.

Representatives for the Scranton School District superintendent’s office did not return a request for comment.

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