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Safety Inspections System for Indian School Facilities Flawed, Report Finds

The U.S. Interior Department's flawed inspections system for Bureau of Indian Education schools poses a serious safety threat to students and staff, the Government Accountability Office has found.

Inspectors for the congressional watchdog agency found that critical violations, such as missing fire extinguishers and elevated levels of carbon monoxide caused by aging boilers, identified in inspection reports were not immediately addressed.

According to the report, the fire extinguishers were still not in place a year after the initial inspection and the boilers, which also leaked natural gas, were not repaired until eight months later.

Overall, the GAO found that more 69 out of the 180 BIE schools, or nearly 40 percent, were not inspected for safety and health violations in fiscal year 2015. The schools serve more than 47,000 students.

"Indian Affairs cannot effectively determine the magnitude and severity of safety and health deficiencies at schools and is thus unable to prioritize deficiencies that pose the greatest danger to students and staff," the report's conclusion read, in part. "... Indian Affairs cannot ensure that the learning and work environment at BIE schools are safe, and it risks causing harm to the very children that it is supposed to educate and protect."

In a response to the GAO report, the Interior Department's Office of Indian Affairs said that staff shortages limit the schools' ability to address safety deficiencies. But the GAO concluded that the agency has not developed a plan to address the shortage.

The GAO recommends the Interior Department:

  • Ensure that all Bureau of Indian Education schools are inspected annually, and that the inspection information is complete and accurate.
  • Revise its inspection guidance and tools to ensure that they are comprehensive and up-to-date.
  • Develop a plan to build schools' capacity to promptly address safety and health problems with facilities.
  • Consistently monitor whether schools have established required safety committees.

In a response to the GAO, Lawrence Robert, the acting assistant secretary of Indian affairs at the Interior Department, wrote that his agency agrees with the report and concurs with its recommendations.

"These findings and recommendations will benefit the department as it moves forward with the implementation of improvements ensuring safety and health at Indian school facilities and at schools within Indian Country," Roberts wrote.

Here's a look at the full GAO report:

  Key Actions Needed to Ensure Safety and Health at Indian School Facilities

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