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Fire-Code Violations Seen Placing Schools, Students in Jeopardy

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A District of Columbia judge is expected this week to rule on a lawsuit accusing the local public schools of 5,700 separate fire-code violations.

Superior Court Judge K. Kaye Christian, who is slated to issue a decision in the case on June 10, already has told the financially strapped District of Columbia school system to take immediate action to correct its widespread fire-code violations, many of which were deemed serious.

Elsewhere around the nation, a combination of tight budgets, old buildings, and increased security concerns appears to have led many school districts to neglect or even create potential fire hazards, according to district officials, fire administrators, and other experts on school safety interviewed last week.

"We are sitting on a potential powder keg,'' said John C. Board, the director of professional and organizational development for the Connecticut Education Association.

The Connecticut teachers' union last year surveyed school principals in the state and found that half worked in buildings without smoke alarms or sprinkler systems.

Although fire-code compliance appears to be improving over all, and deaths by school fires remain extremely rare, several experts on school safety said it was only a matter of time before a school experiences an avoidable tragedy.

The risk of fire-related fatality is especially acute in urban districts, where school buildings tend to be old and neglected and where security concerns have prompted some school administrators to knowingly break fire codes and close off doors.

"Schools right now are faced with a practical dilemma, and they feel that they have a choice between fire safety and personal safety,'' said Kenneth J. Ducote, the director of facility planning for the New Orleans schools.

Because the risk from trespassers is perceived to be much greater than the risk from fire, "schools feel motivated to lock off or chain off as many exits as they can,'' Mr. Ducote said.

Violations Widespread

Jon R. Nisja, the supervisor of the school-inspection program for the state fire-marshal division in Minnesota, said his office has found illegally chained doors in 20 percent of the schools inspected, including many in suburban and rural areas.

Chained doors are less common, however, than many other hazards encountered by Mr. Nisja's office, which has checked 1,200 of the state's 1,500 schools since passage of a 1990 law authorizing regular state inspections of schools for fire-code compliance.

"We are running into a tremendous number of violations,'' Mr. Nisja said. "More than I expected to see.''

Of the schools his office has inspected, 69 percent had insufficient fire walls, 62 percent had problems with fire doors, 61 percent had exit routes partially blocked by stored equipment or other obstructions, 60 percent lacked automatic fire-detection systems, and 55 percent lacked "panic hardware'' to make exits easier to open in emergencies.

In addition, nearly a third had three-story stairwells with openings--often as a result of missing doors--that could act as chimneys for smoke and heat, greatly increasing the risks of fatality.

Of the New Orleans district's 124 schools, 122 have fire-code violations that would take at least one capital project to fix, Mr. Ducote said.

Nearly all the New Orleans schools lack fire-suppression systems in their kitchens and home-economics rooms, he said, and have other kitchen-related violations that would cost a total of $1.5 million to correct.

In addition, Mr. Ducote said, more than 40 schools lack proper fire and smoke barriers in their corridors, and 16 lack sufficient space to house their prekindergarten, kindergarten, and 1st-grade classes on the first floor, as required by fire laws. Providing ground-level classrooms for those children would require $20 million in new facilities.

Fire-code problems also appear common in other institutions that deal with children. The U.S. Health and Human Services Department, as part of a nationwide review of child-care facilities, last year examined federally funded day-care, foster-care, and Head Start providers in Nevada and found multiple fire-code violations, including obstructed exits and flammable materials.

Linked to Overall Neglect

In most districts, fire-code violations are linked to the overall neglect of school facilities, as reflected in a 1991 survey by the American Association of School Administrators that found 12 percent of the nation's school buildings to be inadequate. That report estimated that it would cost $100 billion just to catch up with schools' deferred-maintenance needs. (See Education Week, Nov. 27, 1991.)

Delabian L. Rice-Thurston, the director of Parents United for the D.C. Public Schools, said her advocacy group sued the District of Columbia over school fire-code violations because leaders felt that was the only way to get the city to face up to its school-construction needs.

"Leaking roofs are not illegal,'' she said, but fire violations are. Getting a judge to order code violations corrected appeared to be the only way to get the city to commit more money for building repairs.

In a statement issued last month, Franklin L. Smith, the district superintendent of schools, said a 1991 facilities assessment estimated that the system needed to spend $500 million to comply with fire- and building-safety codes. But only $30 million was budgeted for such needs last year.

"It is not just a question of repairing broken fire alarms,'' Mr. Smith said. "It's also a question of upgrading our buildings so we can remain in compliance with fire codes.''

The District of Columbia asserted during the recent trial over fire-code violations that it had corrected all but 547 of the violations cited by the plaintiffs.

Lawyers for the plaintiffs have disputed that claim, however, arguing at the trial that 56 percent of the district's schools had locked or blocked exit doors in the most recent inspections, while 87 percent had defective fire doors, 37 percent had improperly stored combustible materials, and 5 percent had boiler violations.

While conceding that the school system has taken some steps to correct the problems, Alfred M. Mamlet, the plaintiffs' lawyer, said students continue to endure "illegal and unsafe conditions.''

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