Indian Affairs: Key Actions Needed to Ensure Safety and Health at Indian School Facilities
What GAO Found
The Department of the Interior's (Interior) Office of the Assistant Secretary-Indian Affairs (Indian Affairs) lacks sound information on safety and health conditions of all Bureau of Indian Education (BIE) school facilities. Specifically, GAO found that Indian Affairs' national information on safety and health deficiencies at schools is not complete and accurate because of key weaknesses in its inspection program, which prevented GAO from conducting a broader analysis of schools' safety and health conditions. Indian Affairs' policy requires its regional safety inspectors to conduct inspections of all BIE schools annually to identify facility deficiencies that may pose a threat to the safety and health of students and staff. However, GAO found that 69 out of 180 BIE school locations were not inspected in fiscal year 2015, an increase from 55 locations in fiscal year 2012. Agency officials told GAO that vacancies among regional staff contributed to this trend. As a result, Indian Affairs lacks complete information on the frequency and severity of health and safety deficiencies at BIE schools nationwide and cannot be certain all school facilities are currently meeting safety requirements.
Number of Bureau of Indian Education School Locations That Were Inspected for Safety and Health, Fiscal Years 2012-2015
Indian Affairs is responsible for assisting schools on safety issues, but it is not taking needed steps to support schools in addressing safety and health deficiencies. While national information is not available, officials at several schools GAO visited said they faced significant difficulties addressing deficiencies identified in annual safety and health and boiler inspections. Inspection documents for two schools GAO visited showed numerous high-risk safety and health deficiencies—such as missing fire extinguishers—that were identified in the prior year's inspection report, but had not been addressed. At another school, four aging boilers in a dormitory failed inspection due to elevated levels of carbon monoxide, which can cause poisoning where there is exposure, and a natural gas leak, which can pose an explosion hazard. Interior's policy in this case calls for action within days of the inspection to protect students and staff, but the school continued to use the dormitory, and repairs were not made for about 8 months. Indian Affairs and school officials across several regions said that limited staff capacity, among other factors, impedes schools' ability to address safety deficiencies. Interior issued an order in 2014 that emphasizes building tribes' capacity to operate schools. However, it has not developed a plan to build BIE school staff capacity to promptly address deficiencies. Without Indian Affairs' support of BIE schools to address these deficiencies, unsafe conditions at schools will persist and may endanger students and staff.
Why GAO Did This Study
Indian Affairs is responsible for ensuring safe and healthy learning environments for over 47,000 Indian students at 180 BIE school locations. About two-thirds of these schools are operated by tribes, primarily through federal grants, and about one-third are operated directly by BIE. Over a third of schools include dormitories. GAO was asked to examine the safety and health conditions at these schools.
GAO reviewed the extent to which Indian Affairs has (1) information on the safety and health conditions at BIE school facilities and (2) supported schools in addressing any safety and health deficiencies at school facilities. GAO analyzed agency data for fiscal years 2012 through 2015—the most recent data available—to determine the frequency of school safety and health inspections; visited 16 BIE schools, which were selected based on geographic diversity, condition, and other factors; examined Indian Affairs practices against its policies and safety standards; and interviewed agency officials.
GAO is making four recommendations, including that Indian Affairs conduct required annual inspections at all BIE schools and ensure it collects complete information on school safety and health conditions nationwide, and that it develop a plan to build schools' capacity to promptly address safety and health deficiencies. Interior agreed with all four recommendations and noted several actions it plans to take to address them.
Recommendations for Executive Action
|Department of the Interior||
Priority Rec.To support the collection of complete and accurate safety and health information on the condition of BIE school facilities nationally, the Secretary of the Interior should direct the Assistant Secretary-Indian Affairs to ensure that all BIE schools are annually inspected for safety and health, as required by its policy, and that inspection information is complete and accurate. This could include: (1) Analyzing the key challenges to ensuring that all BIE schools are inspected, as well as implementing a plan to mitigate those challenges. (2) In the interim, prioritizing inspections at schools where facility conditions may pose a greater risk to students--such as schools with dormitories or those that have not been recently inspected.
Interior agreed with this recommendation. In April 2019, Indian Affairs provided documentation that BIE was conducting safety inspections at schools according to Indian Affairs' required schedule and that its Safety Office was taking steps to assess the quality of BIE inspection reports. In February 2020, Indian Affairs provided us with documentation that BIE had completed and provided all schools with safety inspection reports in FY2019. The agency also demonstrated that it had assessed a sample of 10 BIE inspection reports and found no significant issues with the completeness or accuracy of the reports. Indian Affairs' assessment criteria included whether reports applied appropriate safety codes and standards, indicated when identified deficiencies appeared in the prior year's inspection report, and whether responsible safety inspectors certified and submitted their reports within required timeframes, among other criteria.
|Department of the Interior||To support the collection of complete and accurate safety and health information on the condition of BIE school facilities nationally, the Secretary of the Interior should direct the Assistant Secretary-Indian Affairs to revise its inspection guidance and tools to ensure that they are comprehensive and up-to-date; require that regional safety inspectors use them to ensure all vital areas are covered, such as school fire protection; and monitor safety inspectors' use of procedures and tools across regions to ensure they are consistently adopted.||
In May 2017, Indian Affairs implemented new comprehensive guidelines for safety and health inspections and testing and maintaining fire prevention systems. The guidelines, which we reviewed, detail specific inspection procedures which all relevant safety personnel are required to follow. Indian Affairs provided training in May and June of 2017 to relevant staff on using the guidelines. According to the guidelines, Indian Affairs' safety office is required to monitor safety staff compliance with the new inspection procedures. We believe these are important steps to ensuring that regional inspectors have clear procedures in place for conducting BIE school inspections. However, Indian Affairs has not provided us with documentation, such as a plan, for how its safety office will monitor inspections to ensure procedures are consistently followed by inspectors across regions. For example, such monitoring could help ensure that all inspectors conduct a close out meeting with relevant school staff at the conclusion of an on-site safety inspection. We believe such monitoring is important to ensure that the practices of its safety inspectors consistently align with its procedures and result in inspection information that is complete and accurate. We will continue to monitor Indian Affairs' efforts to implement this recommendation. In May 2018, Indian Affairs implemented a monitoring plan to help ensure that safety inspectors consistently use inspection procedures and tools across regions. In addition, agency officials provided us with documentation of examples of such monitoring in several regions.
|Department of the Interior||
Priority Rec.To ensure that all BIE schools are positioned to address safety and health problems with their facilities and provide student environments that are free from hazards, the Secretary of the Interior should direct the Assistant Secretary-Indian Affairs to develop a plan to build schools' capacity to promptly address safety and health problems with facilities. Such a plan could prioritize assistance to schools to improve the expertise of facility staff to maintain and repair school buildings.
Interior agreed with this recommendation. As of January 2022, the agency developed a plan to build schools' capacity to address safety issues, which includes training and professional development opportunities for BIE school staff to build their knowledge and skills related to facility safety. In particular, the plan includes safety and health training sessions that cover a wide variety of areas - from the maintenance of fire alarm and sprinkler systems to OSHA recordkeeping and monthly safety check procedures, among others. BIE started providing the trainings to schools in August 2021 and will continue providing them through September 2022. BIE notified bureau-operated and tribally controlled schools--as well as BIE field offices that work with schools--about the availability of its trainings primarily through email. In addition to its own training opportunities, BIE's safety office notified schools about the availability of additional safety and health training opportunities provided by other Interior agencies, such as the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
|Department of the Interior||To ensure that all BIE schools are positioned to address safety and health problems with their facilities and provide student environments that are free from hazards, the Secretary of the Interior should direct the Assistant Secretary-Indian Affairs to consistently monitor whether schools have established required safety committees.||
In July 2017, Indian Affairs officials provided us with documentation of its new inspection procedures, which include the requirement that its safety inspectors check on an annual basis whether BIE schools have established safety committees. In December 2017, the BIE Director sent a letter to all BIE schools emphasizing the critical role such committees play in school safety and reminding them that all schools are required to have a safety committee in place by the end of the 2017-2018 school year. The letter also informed schools that BIE's recently established Safety Office would provide assistance to schools in establishing safety committees, including webinars and on-site training.