WASHINGTON – At least 19 tribal schools in Arizona went four years or more without the inspections that are supposed to be performed every year by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, according to a recent Government Accountability Office audit.
A GAO official called the missed inspections a sign of a “systemic” issue, and one Native American advocate said the lack of action on the part of the bureau is “baffling” for a problem that has been known about among advocates for a long time.
When GAO officials visited bureau schools across the country, they found kids learning in buildings without fire extinguishers or sprinklers, with exposed wires, asbestos and – in one case – an overflowing sewer system.
“The broader concern is that we need to make sure that students and teachers are safe at these schools,” said Melissa Emrey-Arras, author of the report released last month. She added that school inspections are “not rocket science.”
Lawrence Roberts, acting assistant secretary of Indian Affairs told the Senate Committee of Indian Affairs earlier this month that the report “was obviously very concerning” and that a lack of inspections was “unacceptable.”
He said his agency plans to hire seven more inspectors, and he pledged to inspect all Bureau of Indian Education schools this year. Roberts also said the bureau expects to get a report soon on how it can bring poor-performing schools up to good standards, with suggestions for long-term plans.
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Denise Desiderio, policy and legislative director for the National Congress of American Indians, said people have long known of the missed inspections, noting previous reports on the problem.
“It’s one thing if you’re not aware that the conditions exist. It’s another to be aware and not act on that,” said Desiderio, who described the on-going issue as “baffling.”
She said it’s more than just an oversight.
“I don’t think it would surprise anyone that there would be a tie between school environment and school facilities and the type of education you receive,” Desiderio added.
Ahniwake Rose, executive director of the National Indian Education Association, agreed.
When children are worried about the cold and the air they are breathing in a facility that “is quite literally falling down around them,” it is a reflection that the government doesn’t care, Rose said.
Poor facilities also make it harder to get teachers and administrators to work in the schools. Kids, she noted, don’t have that same choice.
Rose called the audit results unsurprising, noting that “if we’re that far behind on everything else,” the lack of inspections “just make sense.”
Despite the unfortunate findings, she said she was glad the report was raising awareness.
“If you let that apathy take over and you don’t continue to push and to make sure that our schools are safe and secure, then we’ll lose that battle because it’s a nonstop battle really,” Rose said.
While he called the findings “shameful,” Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, said in an emailed statement that he was “encouraged” that Roberts acknowledged the problem and pledged to fix it.
“The federal government has an obligation to provide Native American children with a safe and suitable learning environment, and I will continue working to ensure that promise is fulfilled,” said the email from McCain, a member of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee.
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The GAO report said no schools in the Western region – which includes Arizona, Nevada and Utah – had been inspected since 2012, and three had not been inspected since 2008. The Western region excludes the Navajo Nation, which had three-quarters of its schools inspected in 2015.
Some of the 10 regions inspected all of their schools, while Western and three others inspected none. Nationwide, more than a third of the 180 Bureau of Indian Education schools were not inspected in 2015, the report said.
For those inspections that were done, not all were thorough – in one case an inspector evaluated a school’s multiple buildings from his car. And an inspection doesn’t guarantee that issues found are fixed, the report noted.
It cited various explanations for the inaction, noting extended vacancies in some regions – one lasting up to 10 years. Inspectors complained about a lack of travel budgets and uneven workloads, but Emrey-Arras pointed out that one region inspected all 32 of its schools while another didn’t inspect the two it was responsible for.
The report suggested improvements to the system, which Emrey-Arras said the bureau has been receptive to. But she has doubts about their implementation, given a history of foot-dragging by the bureau on other GAO suggestions.
“They (students) need to be in an environment where it’s safe to learn,” Emrey-Arras said. “That’s kinda the first step.”