A boiler in a Bureau of Indian Affairs classroom failed an inspection in February 2015 because carbon monoxide levels were too high, according to the Government Accountability Office. The level reads 1,267 parts per million (ppm) -- levels above 100 ppm can cause headaches, according to DetectCarbonMonoxide.com. Levels above 1,000 ppm can lead to loss of consciousness after 1 hour of exposure and even death after prolonged exposure. Photo from GAO

Bureau of Indian Affairs slammed for safety conditions at schools

The Bureau of Indian Affairs doesn't know the true health and safety conditions at schools across the nation, putting students and staff at risk, the Government Accountability Office said in a report last week.

The Bureau of Indian Education is supposed to inspect every school every years. But 69 out of 180 institutions were missed in 2015, up from 67 in 2014 and 55 in 2013, the report stated.

"In particular, we found that one of the largest BIE boarding schools — which enrolled about 630 students in 2015 — had not been inspected by Indian Affairs since fiscal year 2011," the GAO wrote.

But even when inspections were completed, the schools went without fixes for lengthy periods of time. For example, 7 of the 11 boilers at one facility failed in 2015 due to various "high-risk deficiencies," the GAO said. [Excerpt: Failed Inspection and Significant Delays in Repair of Boilers Endangered Students and Staff at a BIE School]

Four of them were located in a dormitory, meaning Indian students were subjected to carbon monoxide poisoning and faced the threat of a gas explosion, according to the report. Yet staff were told to keep operating the boilers "because there was no backup system" and the students couldn't be housed elsewhere.

The roof at a Bureau of Indian Education school has sprung multiple leaks after being installed in 2010 at a cost of $3.5 million. Efforts to fix the problem have gone nowhere, according to government officials. Photo from Government Accountability Office

One boiler was in a classroom, the GAO said. A failed inspection notes that the carbon monoxide level was 1,276 parts per million -- an extremely high level that can cause loss of consciousness and even death under prolonged exposure.

It took a tribal inspection -- the tribe was not identified -- to spur some action, the GAO said. The dorm was shut down for 2 to 3 weeks while the gas leaks were repaired, according to the report.

"Most of the boiler repairs were not completed for about 8 months following Indian Affairs’ inspection," the report stated. "Significant delays in boiler repairs prolonged the safety and health risks to students and staff. Indian Affairs and school officials could not provide us with an explanation for why repairs took significantly longer than Indian Affairs’ required time frames."

The report was delivered to the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies, whose members have been trying to secure more funds to replace, repair and maintain crumbling schools. It's a daunting task -- the so-called Bronner report from 2012 estimated it could cost nearly $3 billion just to fix problems at the 68 "highest risk" facilities.

"Congress needs to spend whatever it takes to fix these schools," Rep. Betty McCollum (D-Minnesota), the top Democrat on the subcommittee, said at the National Congress of American Indians winter session last month.

A high-voltage electrical panel was installed next to a dishwater at a Bureau of Indian Education school -- a clear safety hazard. The problem was fixed after the Government Accountability asked about it last October. Photo from GAO

McCollum's panel is taking a closer look at the issue at a hearing on Wednesday. Top BIA and BIE officials will be discussing their fiscal year 2017 budget request and the conditions at the schools.

Melissa Emrey-Arras, the director of Education, Workforce, and Income Security at GAO and the author of the report, is also on the witness list. Her findings indicate that staff shortages and staff disparities were a major reason for the inadequate inspections.

"For example, one region has two schools with one safety inspector position, while another region has 32 schools with one safety inspector position," the GAO wrote.

There were deeper issues too. For example, the BIA hasn't updated its inspection guidance since 2004, the report said. And the guidance is not applied in a consistent manner -- one inspector reportedly declared one facility, which included 34 buildings, was safe without stepping outside of his car, staff told the GAO.

The Indian Health Service came to the school's request and identified "multiple serious safety and health problems," the GAO wrote.

Students, parents and staff at the Cove Day School in Arizona hosted Interior Secretary Sally Jewell and Bureau of Indian Education officials on January 14, 2016. The school, located on the Navajo Nation, will finally receive replacement funds after waiting on a priority list for more than 10 years. Photo from Navajo Nation OPVP Russell Begaye And Jonathan Nez / Facebook

On a broader level, inspectors appear to be failing to collect fire safety information, according to the report.The BIA doesn't know the conditions of fire alarms and sprinklers at dozens of schools as a result, the GAO said.

The GAO, members of Congress from both parties and the Inspector General at the Department of the Interior have long been disclosing alarming conditions at Indian schools. But funding for replacement schools essentially ground to a halt during the second half of the Bush administration amid concerns from certain lawmakers.

The BIA's school construction priority list, as a result, hasn't been updated since 2004. The process is finally restarting this year as a result of attention from McColum's subcommittee and the Obama administration.

But funding remains scarce. Ten of the most deficient schools are competing for just 5 spots on the new list. Congress will still have to appropriate the funding to carry out those projects in the coming fiscal years.

In the current fiscal year, the BIA's budget includes $25.3 million for the Little Singer Community School and Cove Day School, both on the Navajo Nation. Seven of the 10 schools competing for spots on the new list are located on Navajo lands.

Government Accountability Office Report:
Key Actions Needed to Ensure Safety and Health at Indian School Facilities (March 10, 2016)

Committee Notice:
Budget Hearing - Indian Affairs and Oversight of Bureau of Indian Education Schools (March 16, 2016)

FY2017 Budget Documents:
Budget in Brief | Strengthening Tribal Nations and Insular Communities | Indian Affairs | DOI Fact Sheet

More Government Accountability Office Reports:
Further Actions on GAO Recommendations Needed to Address Systemic Management Challenges with Indian Education (April 22, 2015)
Bureau of Indian Education Needs to Improve Oversight of School Spending (November 13, 2014)

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