(This article was originally published on November 6, 2014)
It is a remote public school literally in the middle of nowhere. Located on the Navajo Reservation, the Pine Hill School is an isolated outpost in western New Mexico.
The sprawling K-12 campus is owned by the Bureau of Indian Affairs for the education of more than 250 Native American children. However there is something wrong with this picture. Pine Hill is a candidate for the most dangerous place to learn in America.
“It’s not safe. It’s unsafe,” Charles Jaynes said.
Jaynes, who is now retired, headed up the BIA’s safety division for 28 years.
“It’s shocking that those conditions could be tolerated in a bureau school…operated by the tribe for their people,” Jaynes said. “I am without words to describe it.”
Evidence can be found all over the campus. Superintendent Grant Clawson and Facilities Manager Steve Garcia gave KRQE News 13 a tour of the school grounds, starting with the middle school.
When someone pulls the fire alarm, the alarm does not sound. That’s because the fire alarm has been disconnected.
“We have a control panel on the wall but we have wires sticking everywhere that aren’t connected to anything,” Clawson said.
According to school officials, the fire alarm is also not working in the Head Start building because it doesn’t have a battery. At the high school, the fire alarm is disconnected. The fire alarm also doesn’t work in the kindergarten and the library.
When asked when the alarm last worked at one of the buildings on campus, Clawson said “I have no idea; I’ve only been here four years.”
The fire control box in the gym resembled the others, with a bunch of wires that are not connected. A fire alarm box was also disconnected in the cafeteria and the box was taken out of the maintenance shop.
“Can I explain it to taxpayers? Absolutely not…we should all be outraged,” Jaynes said.
In 2010, KRQE News 13 visited the Pine Hill Dormitory and found that the fire alarm there had been turned off. Four years later, Clawson said the alarm still does not work. He said that he didn’t believe the fire suppression worked either.
During the school year, about 25 students live at the dorms on campus. In case of emergency, Clawson said school officials would have to call facilities or security.
And, even though the Pine Hill Fire Department is just 700 feet away, it’s just an illusion.
Seven years ago, the BIA spent almost a half million dollars building Pine Hill a brand new volunteer fire department. However, the building has never been used. The central fire alarm doesn’t work, the truck will not start and the new equipment sits unpacked in boxes.
Where are all the fire fighters?
“I don’t have no volunteer [firefighters]. I don’t have nothing,” Garcia said.
Clawson said if there is an emergency at the school, the Pine Hill Fire Department would not be able to respond.
“If we have a fire at all, we’d be in big trouble,” Clawson said.
It is not just ghost fire departments and broken fire alarms. There are locked exits, defective fire extinguishers, missing doors on toilet stalls, non-working showers in the locker rooms, Americans with Disabilities Act violations and no bells.
“We don’t even have a cow bell we can go up and down the hall and ring…How can you run a school without bells?” Clawson said.
Then there is building 803.
The BIA spent $2.1 million for the new elementary school. When the project was almost complete, the contractor skipped town.
That was two years ago. Today, it remains unfinished, locked and unused because no one bothered to complete the project.
“We’ve been sitting here with this building complete like it is now for two and a half years. Just sitting here,” Clawson said. “12 classrooms that we have not been given permission to use.”
KRQE News 13’s investigation found Pine Hill has been slapped with hundreds of unaddressed code violations, many of them critical.
“Children should not be in that environment. It’s unsafe,” Jaynes said “If that happened in Albuquerque Public Schools, parents would be up in arms.”
Senator Tom Udall serves on the Senate Indian Affairs Committee.
“This is a disgrace and it’s an outrage,” Udall said.
He said something needs to be done.
“I don’t know how it happens but boy do we have to fix it,” Udall said. “My message to the BIA as it relates to Pine Hill is get your act together and get these kids a good education and get them in this school in a safe way.”
No one at the BIA with direct responsibility over Pine Hill safety would answer questions. At the top, former UNM law Professor and current Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs, Kevin Washburn, would not return phone calls or agree to be interviewed.
He sent in his place, the Director of Indian Education, Monty Roessel.
“Nobody cares more about these kids and these schools than I do,” Roessel said.
Roessel admits Pine Hill did fall through the cracks.
“Of course we accept some of that responsibility they are our buildings but it takes money,” Roessel “The reality of the situation in Indian country and BIA funded schools is that we don’t have enough money to make these repairs.”
The BIA can’t be blamed for all the safety lapses. Under the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act, the feds fund Pine Hill but the Ramah Navajo School Board is responsible for running it. Records show the BIA has paid the school board more than a half million dollars to replace broken fire alarms. Today, the fire alarms still don’t work.
School board officials won’t say what happened to all that money.
“Oh there’s plenty of blame to go around,” Jaynes “I guess you could actually say everyone is responsible.”
Roessel thinks they could have done a better job of fixing the total situation.
“We have to hold the school board accountable,” Roessel said. “They have to be responsible. It’s their children that are in the school.”
The BIA has now hired a contractor to fix all the fire alarms on campus. Roesell said the new elementary classroom building will be brought up to code and open for classes.
“[The bureaucrats in Washington, D.C.] don’t know we’re here, absolutely they don’t know we’re here.” Clawson said. “I’d like [the BIA] to know that we exist, we’re out here, we’re real people and we need help.”