Devastated community grapples with student's death

Michelle and Jim Kehoe, at left, talk with their son, Jimmy, 3, as school police guard the entrance as Friends of Jackson School gather outside the Andrew Jackson Elementary School on Thursday.
Michelle and Jim Kehoe, at left, talk with their son, Jimmy, 3, as school police guard the entrance as Friends of Jackson School gather outside the Andrew Jackson Elementary School on Thursday. (DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer)
Posted: May 22, 2014

How do you comfort a family that's suffered an unspeakable loss?

Gloria Guard wondered that as she stood outside Families Forward, the West Philadelphia shelter that was home the 7-year-old boy who died Wednesday after falling ill at Jackson Elementary.

"We are devastated," said Guard, the shelter's director. "We are trying our best to support this family, any way that we can. We are working with other families at the shelter to try to get them through this, one teeny step at a time."

Parents at the school offered support as well, and gathered Thursday morning on Jackson's steps to demand more money for the Philadelphia School District.

The student, a first grader, died Wednesday afternoon at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia after falling ill at the school. There was no nurse at Jackson at the time the child became ill; the school has a nurse every Thursday and every other Friday.

A retired nurse happened to be volunteering at the school when the boy was stricken, and a staffer trained in CPR administered it before emergency personnel arrived.

It's not clear whether the student, whose name is not being released, had any preexisting medical conditions, or whether having a nurse on duty would have saved his life.

Melissa Wilde, president of Friends of Jackson and parent of two children at the school, noted that it was a strong, diverse school with a dedicated staff. She extended condolences to the child's family.

But she said the community had to speak out "because we are once again forced to ask questions that we should never have to ask.

"Who will be there next time?" Wilde asked. "What if this school had a full-time nurse? What if this school had a full-time counselor? Could they save the next child's life?"

As the child became ill and then died, City Council questioned district officials over their request for more funding, Wilde noted.

"We hope that debate is now closed," she said.

She said the community wants City Council members to immediately release statements signifying they intend to vote for a proposal to devote an extra 1 percent sales tax to schools.

She also called on city and state lawmakers to ensure that in September, "every one of those schools has a full-time nurse, a full-time counselor, and teacher staffing levels that ensure the safety of our children and give them the opportunity to learn."

Behind Wilde and the dozens of parents flanking her, a steady stream of district staff entered the brick school at 12th and Federal. Grief counselors and principals of surrounding schools came to Jackson to support students and staff who needed help.

Avigail Milder, parent of a student at Masterman School, lives in the neighborhood and came to the rally to show support for the Jackson community and the call for funding.

"Emergencies happen everyday," Milder said. "They don't happen Thursday and every other Friday."

There should be more outrage among the community, she said. If city services were at this bare-bones level, "it would not be allowed."

"This is criminal," Milder said. "What are we, a third-world country?"

Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. praised the adults who aided the boy, and extended his deepest condolences to the family.

But he also noted that the boy's death "illustrates the serious needs and challenges that our students, teachers, staff and principals face every day. During times of tragedy, our community should not have to question whether an extra staff member or program would have made a difference. We should all feel confident that our schools have everything they need."

Hite called on the city and state to come up with $440 million.

"We cannot afford one more year of inadequately funded schools," he said.

Shocked by the child's death, the presidents of the national, state and local teachers' unions wrote a letter Thursday to Gov. Corbett.

Randi Weingarten, Ted Kirsch and Jerry Jordan noted that five years ago, Jackson had a nurse on staff full-time.

"But we do know that every child deserves a full-time nurse in his or her school," the labor leaders wrote. "We know that all Philadelphia children deserve better."

They called on Corbett to direct more funds to Philadelphia schools.

"Mr. Governor, we cannot tolerate one more life lost, one more dream snatched from our children," they wrote. "You have the power to fix what you have broken."

The Jackson child's death was the second such incident in Philadelphia schools this year. In October, Laporshia Massey, a sixth grader at Bryant Elementary, died after suffering an asthma attack at school. There was no nurse in the building at Bryant.

A 2007 National Association of School Nurses study found that 45 percent of U.S. public schools had a full-time nurse in the building. Another 30 percent had nurses who split their time between schools and 25 percent had no nurses at all.


kgraham@phillynews.com

215-854-5146 @newskag

www.inquirer.com/schoolfiles

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