A Philadelphia sixth-grader died last September after suffering from an asthma attack at school and failing to receive the medical attention she needed. According to an article published last week in Philadelphia Magazine, which contains a copy of the lawsuit filed on September 2, a sixth grade student began having an asthma attack at school, but no school nurse was on duty that day due to an apparent funding shortage. The school maintained a policy that disallowed students to possess or use prescribed medication without the supervision of a nurse. Rather than giving the student the medication anyway, teachers apparently told the student to “be calm.” School authorities did not take the student to the hospital or render any kind of medical assistance to the student. After arriving home from school, the student’s family took her to Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, but it was too late, and the student died shortly thereafter from acute exacerbation of asthma.
The student’s family filed a federal lawsuit last week against the school district and school officials alleging six counts, including civil rights violations, § 1983 claims, negligence, and wrongful death. As always, it seems that politics may have played a role in this story as well. At the time, the Philadelphia School District was suffering from a significant budget crisis. The State of Pennsylvania had received $45 million in one-time funds from the federal government in an unrelated matter, and the Governor had earmarked the money for Philadelphia schools on the condition that the district’s teachers’ union make certain contract concessions that could save the district over $100 million. There were questions as to whether the school district could even begin school on time without the grant. The two sides were at a standstill when the student’s death occurred, and less than a month later, the Governor released the funds to the school district. It’s only speculation as to whether the release of the funds earlier would have saved this student’s life. The funding wasn’t scheduled to be used only on nurses, and systemic financial reforms and an increase in continued funding may be the only way to ensure that this doesn’t happen again.
In Arkansas, school districts are only required to have one full-time nurse per 750 students. There’s no requirement for every campus to have a nurse on duty, so it’s common, especially among smaller districts, that one nurse covers several campuses. Just yesterday, the Senate and House Education Committees were presented with findings from a nine-month study on the availability and quality of school nurses in public schools, with an emphasis on reviewing this student-to-nurse ratio.