Lax Enforcement Puts California Schools at Risk in Earthquakes

State regulators have routinely failed to enforce California’s landmark earthquake safety law for public schools, allowing children and teachers to occupy buildings with structural flaws and potential safety hazards reported during construction.

Top management with the Division of the State Architect—the chief regulator of construction standards for public schools—for years did nothing about 1,100 building projects that its own supervisors had red-flagged for safety defects. The problems were logged and then filed away without follow-up from the state.

The revelations, uncovered by investigative reporters at Berkeley-based California Watch, come a month after the huge earthquake and tsunami in Japan shone a spotlight on seismic safety issues in the Golden State.

Those safety issues should be especially important to minority communities, whose children make up the majority of students in California's public schools. According to the state Department of Education, as of last November, 51 percent of students identified as Hispanic, 9 percent as Asian and 7 percent as black.

California law requires the state architect’s office to enforce the Field Act—seismic regulations for schools. Enacted nearly 80 years ago, the law is considered a gold standard of construction, and it requires oversight from state regulators to assure professional engineering and quality control from the early design phase to the first day of classes.

The Field Act grants these regulators “the police power of the state” over the construction of public schools.

But over the last two decades, enforcement of the Field Act has been plagued with bureaucratic chaos, the 19-month California Watch investigation has found. Tens of thousands of children attend schools without the required Field Act certification.

Documents show uncertified schools with missing wall anchors, dangerous lights poised above children, poor welding, slipshod emergency exits for disabled students, and malfunctioning fire alarms. These problems were reported by district school inspectors and state field supervisors and then lost in a swamp of paperwork.

At least 20,000 projects – from minor fire alarm upgrades to major construction of new classrooms— were completed without receiving a final safety certification required by law. Roughly six out of every 10 public schools in the state has at least one uncertified building project, a California Watch analysis shows.

“This Is a Crisis”

In many cases, the state does not know if school officials have fixed these problems. Instead, the state architect’s office issued warning letters to school board members and administrators, and walked away.
“This is a crisis,” said Steve Castellanos, the California state architect from 2000 to 2005,
acknowledging the office he once ran needs an overhaul. “I think there has been a failure in the system.”

In 2006, the state architect’s office found inadequate testing of construction materials, an increase in unapproved and unqualified inspections of school sites, and buildings that were “completed with other dangerous construction flaws,” according to internal task force reports and e-mails.

The state cannot assure the safety of students and teachers in every school without unwinding thousands of building projects. It would require contacting scores of architects and contractors, visiting school sites, and reviewing reams of documents from projects that are years and even decades old.

Officials at the state architect’s office say school districts have evaded the Field Act, citing sloppy record keeping among local school administrators and poor communication with state regulators.

“We’ve seen definitely a lack of documentation. We’ve seen inconsistencies in some of the submitted documentation,” said Howard “Chip” Smith, who became acting head of the state architect’s office in August. “But we haven’t actually seen a case where a significant, imminent hazard or risk was posed by one of these projects.”

L.A. School Prompts Alarm

The case files at Southeast Middle School show just how regulatory failures have prompted alarm.

Taxpayers spent $52 million to build the campus on a former General Motors factory site in South Gate, near Los Angeles. The school, which opened in 2004, sits in a liquefaction zone that could turn to mush in an earthquake, according to a report by a geological firm hired by the Los Angeles Unified School District.

Both the main architect and inspector on the construction job insisted that massive windows in the school’s central classroom building were incorrectly installed. Now, more than 1,300 middle school students mingle, send text messages and listen to teachers next to windows that could, building officials have warned, dislodge or shatter in a quake.

Informed about the problems, the state architect’s office denied Field Act certification to the school, then filed the project away without a detailed follow-up until contacted by California Watch.

The state architect’s office said they do not believe there are “any outstanding safety issues on the project.” In an interview, officials with the Los Angeles Unified School District insisted Southeast was constructed to Field Act standards and that critical phases of the design were approved by the state architect’s office.

But a former L.A. district inspector who worked at the school continues to question whether the window defects were repaired. To be certain, he said, the district would have to rip open the walls and test the window connections—and there is no evidence that ever occurred.

“Would I send my kids there, or my grandkids there? No, I wouldn’t,” said David Bridi, the inspector. “Those are huge windows.”

Law Inspired by 1933 Quake

The Field Act became law following the devastating Long Beach earthquake in 1933 destroyed or severely damaged 230 school buildings near the epicenter. Officials speculated that thousands of children could have died if the quake had occurred during school hours.

The central mission of the Division of the State Architect is to enforce the Field Act and its distinct inspection process. The office must review the design and engineering plans for all school construction and renovation projects to make sure the buildings can withstand the ground-shaking forces of an earthquake.

If a contractor is funneling concrete over a series of welds on a support column, an inspector hired by the school district must witness the work and verify that the strength of the welds and concrete meets Field Act standards. A field engineer from the state architect’s office is required to oversee these inspectors.

Critics believe the Field Act is duplicative of local building codes. Legislators have even tried unsuccessfully to abolish it, calling the law onerous and complicated. Some builders say the law creates too much unnecessary paperwork—and costly delays as they wait for action from the state architect’s office.

But seismic experts say the law provides an important system of accountability and is one reason no child has ever died in an earthquake-damaged school in California.

“The Field Act … guaranteed they would have that information and make good use of it,” said Peter Yanev, a World Bank earthquake engineer with more than 40 years of experience studying seismic building failures. “Otherwise, what’s the use?”

Until now, experts such as Yanev said they had believed nearly every school project in California had been certified.

When California Watch asked about uncertified schools last spring, then-State Architect David Thorman, a Schwarzenegger appointee, ordered his office to examine more than 1,000 school construction projects that, records indicated, were completed with unresolved safety problems.

Soon thereafter, the state architect’s office began changing the uncertified projects to a lesser designation, without visiting the schools, according to interviews and records. Regulators only reviewed some of the paperwork in the project files, according to an e-mail from Masha Lutsuk, an administrator at the state architect’s office.

The division started to worry about how the public might react. At a meeting of prominent architects, engineers and builders last year, while discussing the certification issue and California Watch’s investigation, a regional manager for the division said: “It is only a matter of time before this explodes in all our faces.”

More School Earthquake Safety Resources

Reporters Erica Perez, Anna Werner, Kendall Taggart, Agustin Armendariz and Krissy Clark contributed to this report. This story was edited by Robert Salladay and Mark Katches. It was copyedited by Nikki Frick.