Inspection Failures Compromise School Safety

Published November 1, 2004

While parents may have a reasonable expectation that their child’s public school–as a facility owned and operated by the government–would be a safe structure that has passed local construction and fire inspection requirements, recent reports from Florida, Illinois, New York City, and Los Angeles indicate negligence and fraud in school construction and maintenance can severely compromise the safety of children in school.

Shoddy Construction in Florida

Since 2000, School Reform News has reported on safety concerns in the Miami-Dade School District, from fire safety code violations to poorly maintained old schools and shoddily constructed new schools. (See, for example, “A Merry-Go-Round of Irresponsibility,” School Reform News, April 2003.) Recently, investigative reporter Jilda Unruh of Local 10 TV Miami uncovered an explanation for how shoddy construction work might be approved by inspectors: conflict of interest.

“It seems the people who were doing the construction were also responsible for inspecting the project,” reported Local 10 TV.

Unruh pointed out that the inspection firm hired for three school construction contracts in the Miami-Dade district was Ronald E. Frazier and Associates. The firm the district had hired to carry out the construction work was ACT Services, Inc., where Ronald E. Frazier serves as board chairman. ACT’s name surfaced at a school district meeting in February when the board voted to sue the firm for shoddy construction at a fourth school.

In May, residents of Homosassa, Florida, a former fishing town north of Tampa, were shocked to discover that an almost-completed $4 million construction project to add a media center and cafeteria to the 360-student Homosassa Elementary School was so seriously flawed it might be cheaper to tear down than to fix. A testing firm found the new buildings had dozens of missing steel rods, missing reinforcement in the walls, missing wall connections, and missing roof anchors. Specifically:

  • 131 of 149 sections of wall did not have adequate steel and grouting for strength;
  • 55 of 73 places where huge steel beams were tied into the tops of walls had inadequate attachments;
  • not one wall was properly attached to other walls.

In August, town residents were again shocked to find that an internal investigation placed the only serious blame for the debacle on project manager Sam DiGuglielmo. Since other district employees had done their jobs on the project, according to school officials, none will face termination or serious reprimand.

Neither will DiGuglielmo, who retired just after the internal investigation began.

Eight-Year-Old Illinois School to Be Razed

Gavin Central School in Lake County, Illinois was built only eight years ago at a cost of $6.4 million and housed more than 600 students until March, when it was closed because of safety concerns. After further engineering inspections found serious construction faults, officials of Gavin School District 37 voted on September 14 to raze the school rather than try to repair it.

The school board is suing the building’s architect and contractor for more than $5 million, the estimated cost of repairs. The lawsuit alleges Boller Construction and Legat Architects, both of Waukegan, breached their contracts with the district in the design and construction of the school.

Initially, more than a quarter of the building’s 201 wooden roof supports were found to be cracked. After the building was condemned in April, more problems were discovered:

  • the building design called for double-truss roof supports, but only single trusses were installed;
  • 10 of the roof trusses were installed backwards;
  • incomplete steel trusses were installed above the gym and lunchroom;
  • steel reinforcements in the walls–to stop the building from leaning in the wind–were not installed.

“The taxpayers of Gavin School District paid a significant sum of money for a school that was to last this district 50 years and instead received a building that was condemned in eight,” said board president Connie Thorsen, according to The News Sun.

A statement from Boller called the decision to demolish the school “irresponsible, reactionary, and ill-considered,” noting the two firms had offered to repair the building at no cost to the district.

“The board’s action to tear down a building that could readily be repaired, at no cost to the district, is not a decision in the best interests of the taxpayers,” Legat President Wayne Machnich told The News Sun.

New York City Schools Not in Compliance

A May audit report on the safety plans of a sample of 10 New York City schools issued by the City’s Comptroller’s Office revealed several were not in compliance with various aspects of school safety codes, building codes, and other requirements. For example, the state has required defibrillators in all schools since last year, but none of the schools in the sample had the lifesaving devices.

Among the violations of school safety requirements:

  • five schools had not held monthly safety committee meetings;
  • four schools had one or two exit doors that were either locked from inside while school was in session or were extremely difficult to open;
  • three schools had one or two exit doors that did not self-close.

“Locked exit doors are simply unacceptable,” Eva Moskowitz, chairwoman of the City Council’s Education Committee, told the Daily News.

Los Angeles Schools Rack Up Violations

After receiving numerous complaints last year about dirty restrooms in Los Angeles schools, the City Attorney’s Office and the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) agreed to carry out joint inspections, starting with a sample of five campuses. Despite giving the schools two weeks’ notice about inspections scheduled earlier this year, the five schools racked up more than 130 safety and building code violations between them.

The violations included exposed electrical boxes, improperly stored chemicals, leaky roofs, fleas, stray cats, pest infestation–and a lack of soap in restrooms. Most of the five campuses also needed additional seismic bracing. However, most of the problems uncovered are already being addressed, according to district officials.

“Although the inspection results show that we still have a lot of work to do to improve the conditions of our campuses, I think the school district is clearly moving in the right direction,” City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo told the Los Angeles Daily News.

George A. Clowes ([email protected]) is managing editor of School Reform News.