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Security Grilles Fail Inspection

Schools: Quick-release screens ordered two years ago still aren't in place at almost half of L.A. Unified sites, inspection determines.

April 05, 2002|DOUG SMITH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Nearly half of the Los Angeles city schools inspected in a new safety program had classrooms where students could become trapped behind security grilles in an emergency, an analysis of district records shows.

Inspectors have cited 151 of the 315 campuses they evaluated for failure to comply with a 2-year-old policy requiring a quick-release grille to be installed in every classroom that has anti-break-in grilles bolted over its windows.

The district is still short about 8,000 of the latched or breakaway grilles, which cost about $250 apiece, more than twice the cost of the fixed grilles.

Gene Krischer, a school watchdog whose complaints about grilles inspired the 2000 board policy, said he still worries constantly about the possibility of a tragedy.

"God forbid if ... a student [got] injured or killed," Krischer said. "This would be a blow to the district [that] it would never recover from.''

During their first systematic safety examination in decades, inspectors have also found thousands of other violations of state law and school board policies covering everything from the absence of safety management plans to the improper use of hazardous chemicals. The ongoing inspections, which have covered about half of the campuses in the district, offer a strong indication of safety conditions districtwide.

"I would say that this indicates a significant percentage of noncompliance with many of the standards," said Angelo Bellomo, director of the district's Office of Environmental Health and Safety. "It certainly suggests to me there is a lot of work to do."

He described the conditions, however, as similar to those found in most large urban school districts. And he noted that the inspections have not uncovered any imminent hazards to students, such as the lead and asbestos findings that caused portions of several schools to be closed for cleanup over the past 2 1/2 years.

"I do not think there is cause for alarm," Bellomo said of the overall findings. "I think there is cause for action."

About 60% of the problems can be resolved by improved safety procedures at the schools, inspectors said. The rest will require extra funds--an unlikely prospect during a year in which an estimated $400 million must be cut from the district's $9-billion budget.

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Three-Part Plan to Bring Compliance

The safety program, covering all of the district's campuses and administrative sites, is intended to break an entrenched practice of ignoring problems because there is no money to fix them.

Bellomo said the program will keep a focus on safety and begin steps to bring all schools into compliance over time.

The program has three parts. The first was preparation of a guidebook bringing all state, local and district regulations into a single document. The second is a model safety plan now in development that every school can adapt for its own circumstances. The third will be annual inspections to keep up the pressure for compliance.

"We want to find these conditions and we want to correct them," Bellomo said.

In this first round of inspections, the conditions documented vary widely from school to school. Twenty-four schools sailed through with only five or fewer citations.

On average, there were nearly 26 violations per school, with five classified as high-priority, meaning they are serious violations of law requiring immediate attention.

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More Problems in Less Affluent Areas

Overall, schools on the Westside and in the west San Fernando Valley had fewer problems than those in less affluent areas.

For instance, University High School in West Los Angeles had two high-priority violations, both dealing with peeling paint, and only three altogether. By contrast, the 116th Street Elementary School in South-Central Los Angeles had 72 violations, 19 classified as serious. They ranged from inadequate lighting to a cracked playground surface.

More typical is South-Central's 109th Street Elementary School, an old campus with one original building and dozens of portable classrooms of various ages. Although it appears fairly well-maintained, inspectors found 32 violations.

Students entering one second-grade classroom must step over an electrical cord connecting the overhead projector to one of the few outlets in the room. The teacher, Maria Fregoso, has made a mural of construction paper to mask a corner where the paint is scaling off. Some mornings, the odor of mold fills the building.

Plant manager Florida Daniels traced the problem to a storm drain that leaks into a wall.

After she made calls to three different departments, Daniels said, a sheet metal crew responded a month or so ago.

"They wrote something down," Daniels said. "They haven't been back."

Like many other schools, 109th Street Elementary was also cited for fixed security grilles.

Across the district, the lack of breakaway grilles represented one of the most troubling violations--not only because of the potential risk, but also because district officials had told the board nearly a year ago that the problem was solved.

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