Government Watchdog Finds Serious Health Risks in Federally Run American Indian Schools.

The Department of the Interior’s Office of the Assistant Secretary-Indian Affairs is charged with ensuring the safe and healthy schooling for over 47,000 American Indian students.  Presently, there are 185 schools at 180 locations on or near reservations across the United States.  According to the Government Accountability Office (GAO), a non-partisan government watchdog, Interior is failing to protect these students from serious safety and health hazards.

Indian Affairs

Earlier this month, GAO released a report that found that Interior failed to conduct annual safety and health inspections, leading to unsafe conditions at schools that endangered students and staff. For example, the Inspector General found inoperable fire alarm and sprinkler systems, exposed electrical wires, broken windows, and exterior doors that did not close properly.  At one school visited by GAO, the majority of the boilers failed inspection in 2015 due to various high-risk deficiencies, including elevated levels of carbon monoxide and a natural gas leak.  The majority of these boiler deficiencies posed an “imminent danger to life and health”, which required the school to address them within a day.[1]

Indian AffairsNotwithstanding these warnings, most of the boiler repairs were not completed for approximately eight months following Indian Affairs’ inspection.  According to the GAO Report, school officials continued to operate the boilers and use the dormitory after the inspection because there was no backup system to substitute for the boilers or other building available to house the students.[2] Approximately, six months after Indian Affairs’ boiler inspection, the school contacted a tribal utility authority to examine the boilers, which identified multiple gas leaks in the dorm and considered them dangerous to students and staff. Finally, the boilers were shut down, and the school evacuated the students and closed the dormitory for approximately three weeks to conduct emergency repairs of the gas leaks.[3]

Ultimately, in regards to the Indian Affairs Inspection, GAO concluded that:

because [Interior] neither conducted required annual inspections for [Bureau of Indian Education] schools nationwide nor provided updated guidance and tools to its inspectors, it lacks complete and accurate safety and health information on school facilities. As a result, Indian Affairs cannot effectively determine the magnitude and severity of safety and health deficiencies at schools and is thus unable to prioritize deficiencies that pose the greatest danger to students and staff.

GAO determined that “without taking steps to improve oversight and support for BIE schools in these key areas, Indian Affairs cannot ensure that the learning and work environments at BIE schools are safe, and it risks causing harm to the very children that it is supposed to educate and protect.”[4]  GAO also warned “unless steps are promptly taken to address these challenges, it will be difficult for Indian Affairs to ensure the long-term success of a generation of Indian students.”[5]



[1] INDIAN AFFAIRS: Key Actions Needed to Ensure Safety and Health at Indian School Facilities

GAO-16-313: P. 24 (Mar 10, 2016).

[2] Id.[3] Id.[4] Id. 28. (Emphasis added.)[5] INDIAN AFFAIRS, Key Actions Needed to Ensure Safety and Health at Indian School Facilities; Statement of Melissa Emrey-Arras, Director Education, Workforce, and Income Security, p. 3 (March 16, 2016).



Ryan Smith

Ryan Smith

Manager and co-owner of Hohokam(TM) Water LLC

hohokam-logoManager and co-owner of Red CanyonTM Water LLC, Ryan A. Smith, has dedicated his career to helping tribes secure access to clean drinking water. Ryan served as Deputy Counsel for the Arizona Department of Water Resources and as professional staff in the U.S. Senate where he secured hundreds of millions of dollars of federal funding for Indian tribes throughout the United States. He continues to work as an attorney, working with tribes to secure funding for critical water infrastructure.