When they finish their classes at public elementary schools, some students in Santa Clarita walk across campus to private day-care centers with signs warning that the structures do not meet earthquake safety standards and are “NOT TO BE USED FOR SCHOOL PURPOSES.”
Although they would not be allowed to attend public school classes in the structures, they can legally attend day care there.
Such are the loopholes in state laws designed to keep schoolchildren safe in earthquakes.
“It doesn’t make any sense,” Gary McGavin, a state seismic safety commissioner, says of the patchwork of earthquake regulations. “There’s this big, gray, Catch-22 area where nobody is taking responsibility.”
The state Field Act requires public schools to meet higher seismic safety standards than most other buildings. But private schools and day-care centers are exempt. So are temporary public classrooms that can be used for up to six years during renovations or expansions of permanent buildings. And, although no one seems to know why, public school classrooms for the developmentally disabled and for pregnant teens are also exempt.
Noting paradoxes like these, state officials are increasingly questioning exemptions involving facilities for students.
“It’s hard to explain them,” Henry Heydt, assistant director of school facilities planning at the state Department of Education, said of the differing standards. But, he said, “portables are sort of a way of life nowadays. A lot of districts are using exemptions.”
State Sen. Teresa Hughes (D-Inglewood) calls the widespread exemptions “a very, very scary situation.
“No one really publicizes the fact that a public school is not Field Act safe. If the parents really knew, (they) would be up in arms about it.”
Besides design standards, inspection of construction and installation is also a concern.
Private school buildings are not inspected by the state, while public school buildings are. In general, private structures are inspected by local building authorities and must meet safety standards required of all buildings.
But many portable units used by private day-care centers on public school grounds fall into an almost completely unregulated limbo. They often are inspected neither by public school officials nor local building inspectors, who say they do not have jurisdiction over school grounds.
Portables used by public schools for non-temporary purposes are in general @required by the Field Act to have extra-strong construction, and to be bolted to a concrete foundation or wooden foundation secured to the ground. They are inspected during both manufacture and installation by the Division of the State Architect.
But education sources say portables used by private schools and day-care centers are usually built to a somewhat lower standard and rest on dozens of tripod-like metal jack stands that are bolted neither to the building nor to the ground, but rely on gravity to stay upright.
Most private schools and day-care centers use techniques less stringent than called for in the Field Act because they are cheaper. But the majority of all schools installing the structures today use earthquake bracing to increase stability, according to Dennis Kakures, who represents companies that rent the classrooms. It is not clear, however, how many of the previously installed structures have the earthquake bracing.
There is debate over the safety of structures which do not meet Field standards.
Many concerns stem from the fact that the support systems of the jack stand-mounted portables are similar to those used on mobile homes. In the Northridge quake, many mobile homes suffered severe damage, including metal jack stands punching up through the floors of the units when they fell off their supports. Sometimes stairs blocked doors after the units fell and utility lines were severed, creating electrical hazards.
Seismic Safety Commissioner McGavin believes the jack stands pose a serious hazard in classrooms during earthquakes.
If a child were in a portable unit in the duck-and-cover earthquake position taught in many schools, “the kid runs a risk of having his head taken off by a jack stand coming through the floor,” McGavin said.
“I would not want my kid in a trailer,” said McGavin of jack stand-mounted units.
However, Kakures says the experience of mobile homes is not comparable, because many that fell were more than 20 years old, ctood much higher off the ground than portable classrooms and lacked seismic bracing.
Kakures said that all classroom portables did extremely well in the earthquake. He said that he had received reports of only two units that did not meet Field Act standards falling off their jack stands in the quake, and none of jack stands punching through floors. “The proof is in the results,” he said.
However, Brother Hilarion O’Connor, who is in charge of school construction for the Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles, said its portable units will be switched to concrete foundations similar to those required by the Field Act, because of what was learned in the earthquake. At Catholic schools affected by the Northridge quake, portable units on concrete foundations were not damaged, while several on jack stands with earthquake bracing fell off their supports.
Thomas Duffy, superintendent of the Moorpark School District, testified at a recent Seismic Safety Commission hearing that he had all of the jack stand-supported units removed from his district following the Whittier Narrows earthquake. In that temblor, units on jack stands tumbled off their supports, while units on Field Act-approved foundations nearby suffered no damage.
McGavin, an architect who specializes in designing public structures, including schools, says his concerns extend to permanent private school buildings as well.
McGavin said he has seen permanent structures at private schools being rebuilt in the San Fernando Valley with techniques he calls “flimsy,” such as using plywood that is too thin for adequate reinforcement. Although such building methods may meet city codes, they would not be permitted in public schools, said McGavin.
“I’d . . . say private schools should have a code similar to the Field Act,” he said.
Some officials, however, say that present regulations are adequate.
And regardless of regulations, some school districts do more than is required for earthquake safety. For example, the Los Angeles Unified School District puts special education students only in structures that meet Field Act standards.
Officials at the Sulphur Springs Union School District in Santa Clarita say the portable day-care units they use have seismic bracing and are safe. “I wouldn’t be worried about having my kids in one,” said Nick Teeter, assistant superintendent for business services. Warning signs have been posted on portable classrooms because the Division of the State Architect instructed school districts to do so in order to limit the state’s liability, he said.
Lisa Martinez, director of a day-care center on the grounds of a Santa Clarita school, says she feels that her portable, which has earthquake bracing and the warning sign, is safe. “I think (the building) did great” in the earthquake, she said. The only major damage was a water line that broke, she said.
As for expanding regulations to cover structures like this one, Teeter says cost is an issue. “Day care providers probably couldn’t afford (to provide services) if held to the same standard as public schools. You think everyone should be as safe as they possibly can, but you can’t afford that.”
According to Kakures, renting a typical portable classroom, including installation, costs about $12,600 a year for a unit that complies with the Field Act, $9,455 a year for a non-complying unit on jack stands with seismic bracing and $8,675 for a unit without the bracing.
But McGavin said cost should not drive safety regulations. “No kid’s life is worth saving a few dollars,” he said.