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Updated: Tuesday, 11 Dec 2012, 12:08 PM MST
Published : Thursday, 29 Apr 2010, 10:30 PM MDT
ALAMO NAVAJO RESERVATION, N.M. (KRQE) - Thousands of New Mexico children are in danger as the federal agency responsible for Native American schools simply ignores potentially fatal safety issues, two years of research by News 13 investigative reporter Larry Barker has revealed.
Inspection reports obtained by News 13 show the Bureau of Indian Affairs has done little or nothing about school buildings that are falling apart, requirements for handicap accessibility and violations of building and fire codes.
At risk are thousands of Native American students at federal schools, many of them dotting remote locations on the Navajo Nation reservation.
"The safety inspector comes out, inspects it, writes it up," Vaun Allen, facilities manager of the Alamo reservation school in Socorro County, told News 13. "They do the deficiency report, put it on the backlog.
"'See ya next year.' Come out; write it up again. Same cycle."
Vaun said the cracked load-bearing walls in the school gym--which inspectors wrote up as threatening the structural integrity of the entire building--are not a new issue. "It's been about 10, 12 years," he added.
The BIA did direct Alamo to hire a structural engineer to evaluate the gym walls. However, the feds haven't provided money to pay for the evaluation, so today no one--Alamo, the BIA, the students and faculty who use the gym--know whether it's safe.
A visit to the Alamo reservation, an isolated reservation outpost north of Magdalena, reveals the problems first-hand.
Here the Alamo school board is charged with educating 249 Navajo children in grades kindergarten through 12th. It is the BIA, however, that is responsible for footing the bill and keeping kids safe.
But Alamo leaders can only dream about safety. As one example, the school fire alarm hasn't work properly in years.
"This system is pretty well outdated; can't find parts for it," Allen said. "So this whole system needs to be upgraded."
Alamo has been asking for that upgrade for eight years, can't get money from the BIA, and can't afford the project by itself, he said.
Charles Jaynes knows the issues well after running the BIA's safety office for 26 years before retiring.
"In many cases, especially in remote locations, there are Indian children at risk due to code deficiencies at the schools," Jaynes told News 13. "Any fire-alarm system in the schools should be a top-level priority, whether it's BIA or any other school."
At the Lukachukai boarding school tucked away among towering cliffs of the Chuska Mountains southwest of Shiprock Navajo children endure a laundry list of safety hazards and health violations. Restrooms are not handicap accessible, the roof sprang a significant leak a year ago, the cafeteria needs a restroom and the kitchen is routinely written up.
"Every year we've been cited that we don't have a sneeze guard here," Principal Stanley Kedelty said. "Again, we don't have the money to put one in.
"No money. That's our biggest problem. No money."
Yet the problems don't stop there. Classrooms about 80 years old fail to meet fire codes, and there are constant problems with the alarm system
"Off and on, every day, something will come up," Kedelty continued. And if there were a fire in the hallway, he said he said doubts children could get out.
The list goes on and on leaving Kedelty to believe the BIA just doesn't hear pleas from the reservation. After all, Washington is a long way from Lukachukai.
"I don't think they even know we exist," he said. "I don't think they even know there's such a place as Lukachukai Community School."
Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., not only represents New Mexico's tribes and pueblos in Congress but serves on the Indian Affairs Committee.
"If people knew these situations, they'd say, 'This is a national emergency. This is a national disgrace,'" Udall said.
At Borrego Pass, a Navajo community near Crownpoint, the 180 K-through-8th students at the government school practice monthly fire drills and can evacuate the school in minutes.
They take their safety seriously, because should a disaster occur, they're on their own.
"The fact is nobody's going to come for a long time to help those kids out," Jaynes, the retired BIA safety manager, said. "It's just too far away for a fire department or another emergency response unit to get there in time."
Borrego Pass Principal Glenn White Eagle told News 13 that his school is repeatedly cited by safety inspectors for malfunctioning fire alarms. And every year the school asks the BIA for money to install a new system. And every year the request is ignored.
"We have a need, and we're going to keep asking for that need until it's met," White Eagle said.
The BIA obviously has failed to live up to its responsibilities for protecting the health and safety for Indian school children, according to Jaynes.
"These deficiencies have been allowed to exist for periods of 10, 12, 15 years uncorrected," he said.
And that, Jaynes added, absolutely scares the hell out of him.
official contacted by New 13 conceded the agency has a "dismal" safety record. But how high up does this scandal go.
Larry Barker follows that trail in part two of this report.