Tony Dearman, a citizen of the Cherokee Nation, serves as director of the Bureau of Indian Education. Photo: Senate Committee on Indian Affairs

Indian school went without fire alarm system for more than a decade

A federally funded Indian school on the Navajo Nation went without fire protection systems for more than a decade, according to the Office of Inspector General at the Department of the Interior.

Officials at the Pine Hill Schools in New Mexico attempted to fix the problem for seven years, according to a summary of a report released on Monday. But they gave up and "relinquished responsibility" to the Bureau of Indian Education, the OIG stated.

But the BIE, which is part of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, hasn't been able to get the job done. Despite spending $1.2 million on contracts for fire alarm and fire suppression systems, the federal government has failed to make sure they actually work, the summary stated.

"Work on the systems is now largely complete but they have still not passed multiple safety inspections," it read

The problems don't end there. Even though prior lightning strikes at the school "damaged the systems and contributed to cost overruns and project delays," the BIA didn't put lightning protection in the scopes of work for the two contracts it awarded at Pine Hill.

And despite knowing of the lightning problem for years, the BIE isn't doing anything about it, according to the report.

"Although funding for a lightning protection project has been approved for more than a year, BIA has not drafted a new scope of work or solicitation," the OIG said.

The release of the report comes after the leader of the BIE insisted that the federal government takes safety at Indian schools seriously. Tony Dearman, a citizen of the Cherokee Nation who was hired as the director of the agency in November 2016, recently testified about the issue on Capitol Hill.

"Whether it be access to mental and behavioral services, or ensuring classrooms are physically safe, BIE is working effectively and efficiently utilize public resources," Dearman told the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs in May.

But Dearman admitted that the BIE has repeatedly "neglected" reports issued by watchdogs like the OIG and the Government Accountability Office. That's put the lives of Indian students and teachers in danger as the nation focuses on keeping schools safe from all kinds of threats.

"On this committee, we know all too well that Native students often have to fight for the same educational opportunities that many communities take for granted," said Sen. Tom Udall (D-New Mexico), the vice chairman of the panel.

Indianz.Com on SoundCloud: Senate Committee on Indian Affairs - Protecting the Next Generation: Safety and Security at Bureau of Indian Education Schools

The BIE in fact has known about the problems at the Pine Hill Schools, which are located on the Ramah portion of the Navajo Nation, for years. In one of those "neglected" reports, the OIG in January 2016 highlighted the lack of fire protection systems.

"A school official told us that the alarm system has not functioned properly since the school was hit by lightning around 2005," the report stated.

That wasn't the only issue. A site visit turned up numerous safety threats, including exposed electrical wiring, extensive water damage and mold, highly deteriorated infrastructure, unsanitary conditions, improperly installed equipment throughout the school grounds.

There was even barbed wire and fencing material left around by the boarding school dormitory at Pine Hills, the OIG said.

"We found that Pine Hill Boarding School is not safe: Facilities are not properly maintained, and known hazards that endanger students, staff and visitors are ignored," the report stated.

Clockwise, from top left: A garbage trailer overflowing with trash, broken bathroom stalls and unsafe walkways were among the many problems uncovered during an inspection of the Pine Hill Boarding School, a federally funded institution on the New Mexico portion of the Navajo Nation. Photos: Office of Inspector General, Department of the Interior

Fixing the problems requires money and there isn't enough of it. Funding for Indian schools has fallen dramatically since the George W. Bush years and despite a spike in funding at the beginning of the Obama years thanks to the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the BIE has failed to regain ground.

The Trump administration has promised a huge investment in Indian schools with a new infrastructure fund but it depends on increased energy development on public lands. It also must be approved by Congress.

"We do look forward to working with Congress to make sure that BIE schools are included," Dearman said on May 16.

Figures for the effort, though, are incomplete. While the BIE admits to a $643 million backlog in deferred maintenance, no one knows how much it will cost to replace or renovate the worst of schools.

One figure, found in an OIG report from September 2016, estimated that just fixing the worst 68 schools would cost about $1.3 billion. But that amount was itself based on old data -- the so-called Bronner report that was presented to the BIA in 2012.

"If ever there was a group of children in America who deserve the attention, it's Native American and indigenous children," Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-North Dakota) said at the hearing in May.

Wonderful Graduation Ceremony at Pine Hill High School. Seniors this is a great accomplishment, but only one of many...

Posted by Ramah Navajo Police Department on Friday, May 18, 2018

Office of Inspector General Report:
Fire Alarm and Suppression Systems at BIE-Funded School Not Fully Functioning (July 2, 2018)

Prior Office of Inspector General Reports:
BIE Teachers’ Federal Salaries Illegally Supplemented (April 9, 2018)
Alleged Embezzlement at BIE Funded Tribally Controlled Grant School (April 9, 2018)
Embezzlement at Shonto Preparatory School (March 15, 2018)
The Bureau of Indian Education Is Not Ensuring That Background Checks at Indian Education Facilities Are Complete (February 12, 2018)
Company Overbilled Tribal Schools (December 14, 2017)

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