Children Forced to Attend Dangerous Schools

Published October 1, 2000

Two recent class action lawsuits filed at opposite ends of the country raise serious questions about whether public school officials are being held accountable for the safety and integrity of the buildings they are entrusted to maintain.

Despite clearly unsafe and unsanitary conditions in public schools in California and in Dade County, Florida, students and teachers have been required to work in those schools for years while school officials have done nothing to address the problems.

On May 17, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a class action lawsuit against the state of California, contending “appalling conditions” regarding safety, sanitation, and educational resources violated the state constitution’s guarantee of a free and equal public education for all. Broken windows, falling ceiling tiles, vermin infestation, leaky roofs, non-functioning toilets, broken HVAC systems, and lead in drinking fountains plague many of California’s public schools, according to the suit.

On June 17, Paul Novack, the mayor of Surfside, Florida, joined several parents in filing a class action lawsuit against the Miami-Dade County School Board, calling on the board to correct and remedy “life-threatening violations of fire safety and other safety code requirements” detailed in the State Requirements for Educational Facilities (SREF). The lawsuit noted the school board “is aware of the violations and has in many circumstances failed and refused to correct them.”

“Through action and inaction, the School Board has created a public hazard and has placed the students within its jurisdiction in the offending schools in danger of imminent harm,” charged the lawsuit. “The School Board’s action and inaction have created a dangerous environment for Plaintiff’s children in that the students are required to attend schools that contain numerous serious violations of the SREF regulations, which constitutes the fire and safety code for state schools.” [emphasis added]

Although Novack’s lawsuit did not generate national news, as did the California case, it certainly got the attention of Tom Gallagher, Florida’s Commissioner of Education. Three days after the suit was filed, Gallagher issued an order directing all public schools in the state to correct all of their serious fire safety deficiencies by August 15, 2000, or risk being prohibited from opening for the 2000-2001 school year. This, he said, was “to ensure that safety deficiencies are not allowed to go uncorrected.”

Gallagher noted his department had “become aware” of incidents where fire safety deficiencies “have not been corrected in a timely manner.” In fact, prior to the order, public school facilities in Florida–like those in most states–had been exempt from the authority and regulations of local fire and building departments. Fire safety inspectors could inspect schools and write up code violations, but they had no power to enforce compliance. As Mayor Novack discovered at his local high school, fire safety reports were more often filed away than acted on.

Novack discovered the problems at Miami Beach Senior High School when he served as the school’s “Principal for a Day” last December. The school serves students in Miami Beach, Surfside, North Bay Village, Bay Harbor, Bal Harbor, and other neighborhoods. Novack discovered that many safety hazards had gone uncorrected for years: roofs with serious water leaks, exposed electrical wiring, flammable drapes, combustible ceiling tiles, hazardous electrical systems, blocked fire exits, inoperable fire alarms, and padlocked exit doors.

But when Novack brought his findings to the attention of the Miami-Dade School Board, the board at first ignored him. Then, the Board denied there were any problems, and then attempted to conceal their seriousness. Inoperable fire alarm pull boxes were removed or painted over, rather than being repaired or replaced.

“Although the main fire alarm panel reflected ‘fully operational’ status, there was not one single operational pullbox or other mechanism to sound an alarm from any classroom, classroom building, stairwell, or entrance/exit on the campus,” wrote Novack in a March 3 letter to the State Department of Education.

George A. Clowes is managing editor of School Reform News.

For more information . . .

on Surfside Mayor Paul Novack’s attempt to remedy the unsafe conditions at Miami Beach Senior High School, visit