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After Philadelphia Asthma Death, Focus On School Staffing

PHILADELPHIA (AP) — Daniel Burch wonders whether to home school his two asthmatic sons, after losing his 12-year-old daughter to an asthma attack that started at a school with no nurse on duty.

Bryant Elementary School, like others in cash-strapped Philadelphia, has a nurse just two days a week.

Laporshia Massey died Sept. 25 after school staff twice called home to say she felt sick. Burch, though, said he was told she could make it through the day. Instead, he rushed the sixth-grader to a hospital when she got home, only to have her lose consciousness on the way. She died a short time later.

"I figured there was a nurse in school. I thought that was a given," Burch, 42, said Thursday at his lawyer's office, hours before a vigil outside school district headquarters in his daughter's memory.

Laporshia started having trouble breathing near the end of the school day. Her stepmother, who was walking the younger children home from school, took the first call.

About 10 minutes later, Daniel Burch got a call from school at home. But neither parent thought the situation was urgent. Laporshia was then dropped off by an unknown staff person.

"That is unacceptable," said family lawyer Ronald S. Pollack. "Anyone who's trained to recognize the situation would know we've got to call 911 or get this child to a hospital."

A 2012 state Health Department found that 17 percent of Philadelphia students experience asthma during their school years.

At nurse Peg Devine's last school in downtown Philadelphia, the figure was 27 percent. She used to run a club called "Asthma-Busters" to teach more than 100 students how to manage their asthma. She transferred out two years ago when the nursing position was cut to part-time.

"When you don't have the time to educate, it's just heartbreaking. The kids will come in with an inhaler from their doctor's office, and they don't even know how to use it properly," Devine said.

And though the nurses train staff to be alert for medical emergencies, Devine said there are too few adults left in the schools to keep watch.

Although the ailing district was given another $45 million in state funds Wednesday, the money won't be spent on nurses. Instead, Superintendent William Hite plans to rehire about 400 people, including teachers, guidance counselors and assistant principals.

Hite said the district already meets the state standard of 1 nurse for every 1,500 students. That's twice the previous limit of 750 students per nurse, Devine said.

"The issue for Philadelphia is there's so much poverty and so much more asthma than in rural areas. And because there's poverty, asthma isn't managed as well," she said.

That means children often end up in the emergency room.

According to Burch, Laporshia always carried an inhaler to school, although she did not need it every day. Yet he did not find it among her belongings after she died.

She came home that day and tried to clear her lungs with a Nebulizer and steroids, he said. When that didn't work, Burch rushed her to the car.

He blames Laporshia's death on "whoever made the cuts to not have the nurses in the first place." That occurred about two years ago, in one of repeated rounds of layoffs and cutbacks in the struggling district.

Laporshia harbored the same dreams and interests as many girls her age: "fashion, clothes, nails, drawing, writing," her father said, rattling them off quickly as he thought about his oldest girl.

"She was the big sister. And she was a daddy's girl," Burch said.

(© Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)


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