News 13 Investigation: Feds ignore alarming safety violations

Larry Barker

“It’s immoral and illegal.” That’s how a retired safety expert describes a case of federal disregard for school safety.

It’s a flagrant example of governmental misconduct at its worst, and it’s impacting hundreds of New Mexico school children.

The Pine Hill School is an isolated K-12 outpost on the Navajo reservation in western New Mexico. Owned by the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs, Pine Hill ranks as one of the most neglected schools in the country.

Academically, the Pine Hill School has an exceptional record boasting nearly a 100 percent graduation rate. But go behind the scenes, and you find students attending class in a ‘Danger Zone.’

In fact, a newly released four year Department of the Interior Inspector General’s investigation documents BIA neglect going back more than a decade. Investigators found, “…a general condition of mismanagement (that) has resulted in Pine Hill being poorly maintained with several significant safety concerns.”

The Inspector General concludes, “Pine Hill Boarding School is not safe. Facilities are not properly maintained and known hazards that endanger students, staff and visitors are ignored.”

Exhibit number one: Fire safety. According to the Inspector General, the Pine Hill campus hasn’t had a working fire alarm system since 2005. KRQE News 13 first exposed the BIA safety lapses in 2014. We found inoperative fire alarms all over campus: the gym, the high school, the middle school, the kindergarten, the library, the cafeteria and the Maintenance Shop. In most cases, the fire alarm boxes had been disconnected years ago leaving exposed wires.

Although the BIA has spent some $1.2 million to repair Pine Hill’s aging alarm system, as of June the safety system still had not passed multiple safety inspections. On a recent visit, KRQE News 13 found Pine Hill’s temporary Library and Music Room both had inoperative fire alarms.

Retired BIA Safety Chief Charles Jaynes says the BIA has not fulfilled its trust responsibility to Indian children. “It’s not only immoral, it violates a number of federal laws that require safe and healthful facilities for Indian students,” Jaynes says.

And it’s not just fire alarms. Due to Pine Hill’s remote location 60 miles south of Gallup, the BIA spent $470,000 outfitting the school with its very own fire department. That was nine years ago. Today, the Pine Hill Fire Department is a ghost brigade.

In fact, the Pine Hill Fire Department has everything it needs to fight fires, everything, except firefighters.

There’s unused protective bunker gear including boots, coats, and helmets. They have fire hoses that have never been used, as well as a two-way radio that doesn’t work. The non-functioning fire alarm isn’t connected to the main campus. If there’s a fire in the high school, for example, the fire department won’t know about it.

According to now-retired Pine Hill Superintendent Grant Clawson, the fire department’s shiny red fire truck has never been used to fight a fire. “I’ve seen it out in the community a few times. We had a parade once,” Clawson says.

There’s more: For example, at the library, don’t even think about checking out a book. The building is padlocked.

“We evacuated and then the BIA came out and looked at it and affirmed black mold was there. So they closed that building,” former Superintendent Clawson said. That was two years ago. The BIA has not come up with a plan to remediate mold in the library.

In order for students to have access to books, a temporary library is set up in a portable building across campus.

Black mold was also discovered in the school’s kindergarten building. That also was closed two years ago, and the 40 kindergarten students were moved to temporary classrooms elsewhere on campus.

The BIA tells school officials there is no money in the current budget for mold remediation. Pine Hill administrators say they don’t know when the library and kindergarten buildings will re-open.

“The community, the parents, the school board, everybody should be up in arms about this,” says Charles Jaynes. “The children at Pine Hill are entitled to the same privileges that we have sending our kids to school in Albuquerque. No more, no less.”

According to the Interior Department’s IG investigation, the failure to correct ongoing safety deficiencies at Pine Hill is a shared responsibility among the Ramah Navajo School Board, the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Bureau of Indian Education.

KRQE News 13’s investigation of Pine Hill safety goes back to 2010. BIA neglect of reservation school safety has been the focus of several congressional hearings. The latest Inspector General’s report issued in June landed on the desk of Senator Tom Udall.

“When we got the IG report I was furious,” Senator Udall said. “It’s appalling what’s happening… (The Pine Hill School) is worse than I’ve ever seen it.”

Udall, who is a ranking member of the Senate’s Indian Affairs Committee, has been an outspoken critic of BIA negligence relating to Native American education and safety.

“I’ve called them in. I’ve read them the Riot Act and I said, ‘You give me weekly reports and if you don’t get this right very soon we’re headed up the chain to let people know that this isn’t acceptable.’ They’ve done an appalling job,” Udall said.

So what does the Bureau of Indian Affairs have to say? We don’t know. The Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs is Tara Mac Lean Sweeney. A spokeswoman in her office did not respond to repeated requests for an interview on the Pine Hill investigation.

Retired Pine Hill Superintendent Clawson says he’s never had anyone at the BIA call him up and say, “‘What do you need? We want to fix this school.’ Usually it’s, ‘you again,'” Clawson says.

So who failed the 330 kids who attend Pine Hill? “Well, ultimately everyone failed them. The local school board. The tribe and ultimately the federal government,” Charles Jaynes says.

Do the top Indian Affairs bureaucrats in Washington know where Pine Hill is today? According to Senator Udall, “The two top bureaucrats in Washington know after meeting with me last week. That’s for sure.”

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