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

GAO-16-391T Published: Mar 16, 2016. Publicly Released: Mar 16, 2016.
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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

Fig High_5 v02 - 131310

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

This testimony summarizes the information contained in GAO's March 2016 report, entitled Indian Affairs: Key Actions Needed to Ensure Safety and Health at Indian School Facilities, GAO-16-313.

For more information, contact Melissa Emrey-Arras at (617) 788-0534 or

Full Report

Office of Public Affairs


Building inspectionEducational facilitiesEducational facility constructionEmployeesFacility maintenanceFacility managementFacility repairsInternal controlsNative American educationOccupational health and safety programsRequirements definitionSafetySafety regulationSchoolsSecondary schoolsStudents