Watching a series of disasters bring Japan to its knees, it's hard to ignore the fact that we, too, live in earthquake country. The California Report teamed up with California Watch to investigate the way our state regulates seismic safety in public school construction. What we found are cracks in the system that raise troubling questions about the safety of thousands of students and teachers. Reporter: Krissy Clark
[Corey Johnson and Michael Montgomery also contributed to this story.]
The Vikings, Pescadero High School's basketball team, are practicing in the gym. Right next to an earthquake fault line.
Bryan Burns, a local parent, points it out. "The earthquake fault comes across the front lawn of the high school towards the south side of the building."
He didn't think much about this unsettling but common piece of California geology, he says, until a few years ago when the school put a new roof on the gym. Then he noticed symmetrical cracks going down one of the gym walls that made him question the structural soundness of the building.
Concerned, he contacted the Division of the State Architect. The agency was created in 1933 after the Long Beach earthquake destroyed 70 schools. Horrified lawmakers passed the Field Act, which requires state regulators to document and certify that every public school buildings is constructed according to strict earthquake standards.
But when Burns got in touch with the field engineer in charge of the La Honda Pescadero School District, the engineer didn't know anything about the high school. Burns did some research into state records, and discovered that the recent construction on the gym was not earthquake certified.
"That's when the light bulb went on," said Jeff Gananian, another local parent who teamed up with Burns. "And we began to realize that there are potentially thousands and thousands of uncertified buildings, or more."
The Pescadero High School gym is far from alone. An analysis of state records shows roughly six out of every 10 public schools in California have at least one uncertified building. From minor fire alarm upgrades to brand new classrooms, over 20,000 school construction projects lack the final safety certification required by law.
Steve Castellanos who ran the Division of the State Architect from 2000 to 2005, was shocked when told.
"Tens of thousands would indicate to me something that is approaching a crisis, if not a failure," he said. "Parents and citizens in California have come to expect that they're children are housed in safe schools and my view of certification is that it's not an option, but it's a duty of the state to provide that certification."
California's failure to certify thousands of schools occurred over the last three decades, in the middle of a construction boom. More school building projects demanded more resources for state watchdogs. At the same time, various governors began raiding the budget of the State Architect who conducts those certifications.
Meanwhile, school districts, in a rush to ease crowded classrooms, pressured architects, builders and their own inspectors to move forward on projects even if it meant overlooking some requirements of the earthquake safety law.
Howard "Chip" Smith, who currently runs the Division of the State Architect, blames the 20,000 uncertified projects on a paperwork backlog. "We've seen definitely a lack of documentation. We've seen inconsistencies in some of the submitted documentation. But we haven't actually seen a case where a significant, imminent hazard or risk was posed by one of these projects."
But if the problem is one of paperwork, what does it mean if that paperwork verifies inspections critical to enforcing the quake-safety law? Consider the case of one uncertified project, Southeast Middle School in Los Angeles.
Southeast opened in 2004 in one of the city's poorest neighborhoods. More than six years later, while the eighth-grade students can rattle off what to do in an earthquake, the school building has still not received final earthquake safety certification. State records, and inspection reports from the Los Angeles Unified school district raise questions about whether the glass facade of the classroom building -- a three-story wall made entirely of windows -- was properly anchored.
The original supervising architect on the project, Jim Smith, says he was concerned that in a strong earthquake "the whole window wall could come out, or glass shattering. Obviously if that happens, you have students and teachers that are in those rooms and outside those rooms so, it's not a good situation. They could be injured."
Smith says the school district was under a tight construction schedule, and he was told the plan was to go back later to make any needed fixes. Citing concerns over the windows, the state denied the school earthquake certification, then filed the project away without a detailed follow-up.
Neil Gamble, the school district's Director of Maintenance and Operations says that the windows were installed properly and are safe.
"Based on the documentation that I've seen all of the issues there were addressed, and were satisfactorily addressed, and we're in the final certification of the project," he said.
Gamble points to a document signed by a district building inspector who worked on the job that states the window walls were installed according to earthquake-safety standards. But that document was dated nearly five years after the windows were put in and the school opened. David Bridi, a school district inspector who was also on the project, questions whether the concerns about the windows were ever actually resolved.
"You have to have a paper work trail. You want to produce that picture, that document, proof the work had been done," he said.
Bridi was troubled by the fact that the school district could not produce any field documentation to verify the windows had been anchored safely. "Would I send my kids there, or my grandkids there? No, I wouldn't," he said. "Those are huge windows."
So what does this all mean for school safety? Every school has hundreds of documents to track, and some get misplaced, says Scott Harvey, the head of California's Department of General Services, who oversees at the Division of the State Architect. That doesn't mean a school is unsafe.
"I'm hopeful that we have done the best we can to ensure that kids are safe in their schools," he said.
But Harvey concedes that without proper documentation, no one can be really sure how safe a school is.