Federal officials have failed to ensure regular inspections are carried out at dozens of Native American schools, where safety hazards have ranged from exposed electrical wires and broken windows to a natural gas leak, a government watchdog said.
Nearly 200 schools in some 20 states fall under the oversight of the Interior Department’s Bureau of Indian Education – an agency that faced recent scrutiny for rundown classrooms before receiving $138 million in funding this year to bring buildings to code and replace others altogether.
The Government Accountability Office report released Wednesday found that even with improvements in the works, disrepair could persist without a system for making sure schools undergo annual inspections and have plans in place for promptly making repairs, especially when a threat is posed to students.
“Indian Affairs cannot ensure that the learning and work environments at BIE schools are safe, and it risks causing harm to the very children that it is charged with educating and protecting,” the congressional watchdog said.
The federally run schools, primarily on rural reservations, serve 47,000 Native American children.
At one school, documents showed four aging dormitory boilers failed an inspection and were blamed for high carbon monoxide levels and a natural gas leak, but weren’t repaired until about eight months later, the watchdog said.
The problem boilers represented the most alarming example of safety hazards included in the report that was drafted after GAO site visits to 16 schools in Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, South Dakota and Oklahoma. The report did not identify the school or say whether carbon monoxide had sickened any students.
In a response enclosed in the GAO report, Larry Roberts, the Interior Department’s acting assistant secretary for Indian Affairs, said the department agreed overall with the findings, which come as federal officials attempt to overhaul the Bureau of Indian Education school system and turn over more control of the schools to tribes. The Interior Department is seeking $1 billion to improve classrooms and technology at the schools, and introduce Native American cultural programs for students.
The GAO report raised concerns that the overhaul for the schools did not include a plan to support tribes in addressing disrepair as they take over the schools.
“Without Indian Affairs’ support of BIE schools to address these deficiencies, unsafe conditions at schools will persist and may endanger students and staff,” the GAO said.
Roberts said the department would develop a new tracking and reporting system for inspections and repairs.
According to the report, 69 schools did not receive building inspections in 2015 – up from 55 schools in 2012 – while inspections for other some other schools were incomplete
The GAO report said the inadequate reporting has left the Interior Department without an accurate look at the full scope of potential safety hazards at the schools.