Thirteen Cerritos and Artesia schools in the along with thousands of other K-12 public schools statewide either have buildings with potentially dangerous seismic hazards, or school construction projects that never received final safety certification as required by law, according to the findings of a 19-month investigation conducted by a team of California Watch reporters and researchers.
California began regulating school architecture for seismic safety in 1933 with the Field Act, but data taken from the Division of the State Architect’s Office shows 20,000 school projects never received final safety certifications. In the crunch to get schools built within the last few decades, state architects have been lax on enforcement, California Watch reported.
A separate inventory completed nine years ago unveiled 7,500 seismically risky school buildings in the state. Yet, California Watch reports that only two schools have been able to access a $200 million fund for upgrades.
When told about the potential dangers in some of the district's buildings, a parent of a child at asked, "If these problems really exist in our schools, why are we letting our children be in these buildings?"
AB 300 List
The California Watch Interactive Map shows there are five Cerritos-Artesia district schools on the state’s AB 300 list – a list compiled in 2002 that represents schools with older buildings that were built when the laws didn’t require strict seismic safety designs.
The following schools have building projects that are considered seismically risky and are not expected to withstand earthquakes according to California Watch records:
- – one project
- Benito Juarez Elementary – two projects
- l – four projects
- – two projects
- – two projects
* to see a list of other district schools on the AB 300 list that are outside the Cerritos and Artesia area, click here.
Schools that appear on the AB 300 list have seismic hazards that are in urgent need of detailed building inspections and follow-up repairs. But of the five red-flagged district schools, California Watch database records show that a mandatory seismic review was only done at Juarez Elementary. And while a required follow-up inspection was performed, repairs were not completed to fix the potentially dangerous structural problems to two of the school's buildings.
But the district is not alone on this nearly decade-long AB 300 list, which includes more than 7,500 school projects deemed not likely to perform well in an earthquake. This staggering number begs the question:
Why are students and teachers allowed to occupy buildings with structural flaws and potential safety hazards?
Schools Lacking Field Act Certification
Upon further investigation, the California Watch team also discovered roughly 20,000 statewide school projects, ranging from minor fire alarm upgrades to major construction of new classrooms, that were completed without receiving final safety certification as required by the Field Act.
""This is a crisis," said Steve Castellanos, the state architect from 2000 to 2005. "I think there has been a failure in the system."
The state's Field Act, which was enacted a month after the 1933 Long Beach earthquake, is a regulation that mandates careful design review, inspection of construction and in-depth quality control for K-12 schools projects. This gold standard of construction is used to make sure that buildings are strong enough to withstand the forces of an earthquake.
Although school board members, builders, architects and inspectors can be charged with a felony for not following the act’s provisions, records show that tens of thousands of students today attend schools that do not have the proper certification. And yet no one has been held liable for allowing these uncertified projects to fall through the cracks.
The investigation team’s database shows a total of 31 uncertified building projects in ABC Unified School District alone. Several of those projects are labeled “various schools” while others include specified building constructions at:
- John H. Niemes Elementary School
- John F. Kennedy Elementary School
- Adult Education Center
District Schools Nearby:
- Artesia High School in Lakewood
- Ella P. Melbourne Elementary School in Lakewood
- Ferguson Elementary School in Hawaiian Gardens
- Hawaiian Elementary School in Hawaiian Gardens
The records also indicate that the state architect’s office sent the district Letter 3 certifications for these projects, meaning the constructions were denied final certification because important documents were missing, which suggests safety problems.
Projects that meet the Field Act standards, receive Letter 1 or Letter 2 certifications while projects with egregious unresolved safety issues are given Letter 4 certifications. There are no district schools on the Letter 4 list.
However, California Watch points out that once its investigation started in 2009, the state architect’s office began downgrading large numbers of projects from Letter 4 to Letter 3.
“These numbers are alarming and scary,” said Debbie Cunningham whose granddaughter Cheyenne is a sophomore at Artesia High School. “We as parents and grandparents have the right to know about these safety problems.”
Although the Southland has not experienced a major quake since the 1994 Northridge trembler, seismic safety is of paramount concern given the unfathomable images from Haiti, Chile and Japan in the past few years, showing the massive amounts of destruction that a large-magnitude earthquake can cause.
“We need to know that our kids are in buildings that are safe if the ‘Big One’ ever happens here,” Cunningham added.
When asked about the safety of children inside the state's public schools, Scott Harvey, the acting director of the Department of General Services, which oversees the state architect's office expressed doubt, "I don't really know. I'm hopeful that we have done the best we can to assure that kids are safe in our schools."
ABC Unified School District's Response
The investigation findings were provided to ABC Unified School District's Child Welfare and Attendance Department earlier this week. District officials have begun pouring over construction and project records in an effort to determine the updated seismic status of the various red-flagged or uncertified projects. It is unclear how long the review of records is expected to take.
This story was produced using data provided to Patch by California Watch, the state's largest investigative reporting team and part of the Center for Investigative Reporting. Read more about Patch's collaboration with California Watch.