School Climate & Safety

Portable Cafeteria Table Topples, Killing Phila. Boy

By Scott W. Wright — February 14, 2001 2 min read
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Philadelphia public school officials ordered the inspection of thousands of portable cafeteria tables last week, after one of the fold-up tables toppled over and crushed a 5-year-old boy.

Jonathan Cozzolino, a kindergartner at the 739-student Hamilton Disston Elementary School, died Feb. 1 of massive head trauma shortly after he was taken to a local hospital. District officials characterized the incident, which happened as the boy and his classmates were leaving the lunchroom, as a freak accident.

“This is a standard cafeteria folding table that exists in thousands of school across the country,” said Paul Hanson, a spokesman for the 208,000-student Philadelphia district. “We still don’t know why this particular table fell on this particular boy at this particular time.”

Federal safety records show that nine students have been killed and 18 others injured in U.S. schools since 1980 in accidents involving the portable cafeteria tables. They weigh up to 350 pounds, stand about 6 feet tall when folded, and stand on wheels so they can be easily moved.

“We’ve done a lot of work to get the word out about how dangerous these tables can be,” said Russ Rader, a spokesman for the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission in Bethesda, Md., which sent a representative to Philadelphia last week to investigate.

“It’s really important for school administrators to review how these tables are being handled,” Mr. Rader said, “and to make sure they are secured and that kids can’t be around them and play around them when [the tables] are just sitting there in a room.”

After receiving reports of several student deaths, the commission in 1989 launched a national campaign to warn every school district about the potential danger that the tables posed. It also secured manufacturers’ agreement to attach warning labels to the tables.

That campaign—and the warning labels—stressed that only adults, not students, should be allowed to move the rolling tables because of the tipover danger. Mr. Rader said the commission has now gone further.

“Our recommendation is that they should always be locked up and secured in some way when children are in the room,” he said. “They should not just be sitting out, folded up, when children are in the room because they are very top-heavy, and anything can happen in the blink of an eye.”

Out of Service

In Philadelphia, where school administrators estimate they use about 5,000 of the portable cafeteria tables, Philip Goldsmith, the district’s interim chief executive officer, ordered last week’s inspection. About 10 percent of the tables were taken out of service because of damage.

“We’re not sure whether the table that fell was damaged, but we are removing all damaged tables to prevent any possible recurrence of the accident,” Mr. Hanson said. “By damage, I mean everything from a damaged seat to a hydraulic mechanism that won’t allow the table to close properly.”

The kindergarten class was the only one in the lunchroom at the time of the accident at Disston Elementary. It was unclear how many students witnessed the incident. Mr. Hanson also declined to say how many adults were in the room at the time, but said there were some, including the cafeteria staff.

A version of this article appeared in the February 14, 2001 edition of Education Week as Portable Cafeteria Table Topples, Killing Phila. Boy

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