View Point

By Bob McDermott

Saturday, April 10, 1999

Inspection of
schools is flunking

CONDITIONS at Radford High School have been declining for years, but it is only recently that its hazardous conditions have emerged into the public spotlight. One of the causes of this sustained, systematic neglect are the fundamental flaws in the School Inspection Program that is supposed to monitor conditions in the public schools statewide.

The inspectors are concerned volunteers drawn from the community. They receive only 90 minutes of training and instruction in performing inspections before they go onto campuses. While it is laudable that volunteers are willing to devote their time and energy to help monitor conditions in the schools, the limited training they receive greatly increases the chances that a safety hazard or building code violation could be missed.

At Radford, there are fluorescent light fixtures that are literally tied to beams in the ceiling. Is this a safety hazard, a fire code violation or just messy installation?

Under the current system, it is up to untrained volunteers to make the decision. Clearly, more qualified inspectors are needed to make sure safety hazards that could imperil our children are identified.

Another challenge is that safety inspectors use an imprecise grading system to assess the facilities at the schools. Each category gets graded from one to three, reflecting a situation that is very good, acceptable or unacceptable.

Cracked windows, peeling paint, termite damage and corroded fixtures get categorized as acceptable when they are assessed. This is ridiculous! However, given the narrow parameters, the volunteers have no choice but to rate them as such.

It is disgraceful that these sorts of conditions exist in our schools. But since they pose no immediate peril, they are routinely classified as OK.

Hazards that can be removed also get graded as acceptable, which means that even if a garbage truck accidentally dumped its load on campus, the grounds would still be rated as acceptable. It is my belief that the only way a building could fail is if it were literally on fire.

A final hurdle is that inspection categories also work to obscure the problem areas at a school. In its last inspection, Radford earned an overall ranking of two, which is acceptable.

Yet this overall ranking is constructed by averaging the scores from six different areas: grounds, building exteriors, building interiors, furniture/equipment, safety and sanitation. Because the categories are equally rated, a one in a particular category can balance out a three in another.

Under this system, well-maintained grounds could obscure a low grade for safety. The school would still get an overall rating of acceptable, even though safety hazards were rated unacceptable. This is one reason that, after the last round of safety inspections, only one out of 249 schools was found unacceptable.

It has become obvious in the last few weeks that, if a school in Radford's decrepit condition can be judged as acceptable, this system desperately needs changing. Reforming the way assessments are calculated would expose more hazards, making them known to the educational system so they could be addressed.

But health and safety problems at Radford and other schools cannot be fixed unless the education system is made aware of the problems in the first place. The current methodology of the School Inspection Program doesn't ensure the safety of our children going to public schools.

We need to fix this broken system now. We owe the children of Radford, and all others, a safe, clean and wholesome learning environment.

Bob McDermott is a Republican state
representative for the 32nd House District (Aliamanu, Hickam,
Foster Village, Halawa Valley and Aiea).

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