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Philadelphia School District Settles First Amendment Claim by Teachers

Dec 21, 2023

PHILADELPHIA – The School District of Philadelphia has agreed to clear the records of fifty current and former teachers at the Julia R. Masterman School (“Masterman”) in Philadelphia who were disciplined and had their pay docked when they worked outside the school building for two days to bring attention to the potential asbestos hazards for students and teachers at the school.

The School District will also pay the teachers $37,000, which is enough to reimburse all of the teachers for the pay they lost. Finally, the School District will pay the fees of the teachers’ attorneys.

The settlement will end a lawsuit filed in August 2023 by two current and one former teacher on behalf of all the teachers who were punished as a result of the protest. Judgment will be entered in favor of the teachers and against the School District.

In August 2021, before classes started for the 2021-22 school year, virtually the entire teaching staff at Masterman worked for two days on the large patio outside the school to bring attention to the potential asbestos hazards in the building. There were no classes on those days: the teachers were completing virtual staff training requirements and preparing their lessons for the next week. This followed months of efforts by the Masterman teachers and parents to get information from the School District about the adequacy of the asbestos remediation in the building.

In response to the teachers’ refusal to work inside the building, the School District issued disciplinary notices saying the teachers were absent without leave, and docked their pay for the days they spent working outside.

After many attempts to resolve the dispute, the teachers filed suit on August 18, 2023, alleging that the discipline violated their First Amendment rights and demanding that the District reverse the disciplinary action and reimburse the teachers for their lost wages.

“We are very glad the School District will reimburse the teachers and clear their records,” said Mary Catherine Roper, counsel for the teachers. “But it is a shame that the lawsuit could not give the teachers the thing they wanted most: to know that their school is safe.” Any money left over after the teachers are paid will go toward continuing the teacher’s advocacy for a safe teaching environment in their school.

Ethan Tannen, the lead plaintiff in the suit, echoed that concern: “I am glad to resolve the wrongful discipline and recover the lost pay for me and my colleagues, but we still lack adequate information about the safety of our school building, as is the case in many schools across the School District of Philadelphia. It is long past time that city officials take the steps necessary to ensure the health and safety of our schools. This is a unique issue, as it is not just about conditions for staff; our working conditions are our students’ learning conditions. Families across Philadelphia should not be kept in the dark about the hazards in our school buildings. We deserve transparency, and we deserve a proactive, aggressive plan for addressing these hazards.”

The lawsuit is Tannen v. The School District of Philadelphia, docketed at 2:23-cv-03189 in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. Counsel on the case are Mary Catherine Roper and Irv Ackelsberg of Langer Grogan & Diver and Seth Kreimer of the University of Pennsylvania Carey School of Law.

Photos by Dale Mezzacappa / Chalkbeat