Leader of Bureau of Indian Affairs promises to inspect all schools

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

The leader of the Bureau of Indian Affairs on Wednesday promised to complete inspections of every school facility after a report uncovered alarming conditions that put Indian children at risk.

In 2015, 69 out of 180 institutions were missed, according to the Government Accountability Office. In one case, a school and dormitory had 11 failing boilers that weren't fixed for eight months, subjecting students and staff to dangerous levels of carbon monoxide poisoning, the report said.

"You have my commitment that we will have all inspections for the facilities this year," acting assistant secretary Larry Roberts told the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies.

Yet Roberts was unable to explain fully why the BIA has failed to do its job. Although he wrote a response to the GAO on February 29 -- meaning he was aware of the findings, at least in draft form, for more than three weeks -- he said he doesn't know what's happening at the agency's offices across Indian Country.

"In terms of why those inspections did not occur I would have to get back to you," Roberts told Rep. Ken Calvert (R-California), the chairman of the subcommittee.

"My sense is that some of that was probably due to vacancies but I don't have the specifics on that," Roberts said.

Roberts was also unable to say whether anyone in the BIA has been held accountable for the lapse in safety. According to the GAO, staff in the the Northwest, Southern Plains, Southwest and Western regions have been repeatedly failing to complete all of their inspections -- as far back as 2008 in some instances.

"Somebody should be held responsible for something like this," Calvert said, because the lack of inspections put the lives of Indian children at risk.

Indianz.Com SoundCloud: House Subcommittee on Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies March 16 2016

According to Roberts, the BIA has lost nearly 17 percent of its workforce since 2008. Some of that is due to budget cuts and some can be traced to tribes taking over the agency's functions through self-determination contracts and self-governance compacts.

But vacancies cannot completely explain why the BIA is failing to do its job, Melissa Emrey-Arras, the director of Education, Workforce, and Income Security at the GAO, said at the hearing. She recounted one instance in which an employee conducted a "drive by inspection" at a school with 34 buildings. Even though he never left his car, she said he filed a one-page document stating that everything was fine.

The Indian Health Service later came at the school's request and uncovered "multiple serious safety and health problems, including electrical shock hazards, emergency lighting and fire alarms that did not work, and fire doors that were difficult to open or close," Emrey-Arras said in her testimony.

BIA staff also told the GAO that restrictions in travel budgets hindered inspections. Yet in two of the worst performing regions, Emrey-Arras noted that several schools were within 50 miles of the BIA regional office but were still missed. In one instance, a school was withing "walking distance," she said.

"It's somewhat of a mystery of us, given some of the circumstances we learned about," Emrey-Arras told the panel. The school within walking distance was in fact only 300 yards away yet it was never inspected, she said.

Emrey-Arras further pointed out that some regions had more schools on their plate and were able to complete those inspections while others have repeatedly failed.

"This is decades and decades and decades of neglect and failure of the federal government to live up to its obligations," said Rep. Betty McCollum (D-Minnesota), the top Democrat on the subcommittee.

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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