Thousands of schools at risk during earthquake

Berkeley Unified School District Headquarters

A team of California Watch reporters and researchers spent the last 19 months investigating how the state enforces the Field Act, a strict seismic safety law that is supposed to protect school children at public schools. California Watch is partnering with dozens of California newspapers, television stations, radio outlets, and websites, including Berkeleyside,  to distribute their findings. Berkeleyside will have a story about the hazards of the city’s schools later today.

Among the findings to be presented in California Watch’s three-part series:

  • At least 20,000 projects – from minor fire alarm upgrades to major construction of new classrooms – were completed without receiving a final safety certification required by law. A California Watch analysis determined that roughly six out of every 10 public schools in the state has at least one uncertified building project.
  • A separate state seismic inventory created nearly a decade ago shows more than 7,500 older school buildings as potentially dangerous. But restrictive rules have prevented schools from accessing a special $200 million fund for seismic repairs. Only two have tapped the money. The vast majority of the buildings remain unfixed, and the money unused.
  • The California Geological Survey redrew the state’s official earthquake hazard maps decades ago amid pressure from property owners, real estate agents and local government officials who feared property values would decline inside these seismic hot spots. As the maps shifted, some schools were located in hazard zones one day and out the next.

Here is part one of California Watch’s three-part series.

By Corey G. Johnson
California Watch


State regulators have routinely failed to enforce California’s landmark earthquake safety law for public schools, allowing children and teachers to occupy buildings with structural flaws and potential safety hazards reported during construction.

Top management with the Division of the State Architect – the chief regulator of school construction – for years did nothing about nearly 1,100 building projects that its own supervisors had red-flagged. Safety defects were logged and then filed away without follow-up from the state.

California law requires the state architect’s office to enforce the Field Act – seismic regulations enacted nearly 80 years ago. The law is considered a gold standard of school construction. It requires state oversight to assure professional engineering and quality control from the early design phase to the first day of classes.

These regulators are granted “the police power of the state” over the construction of public schools.

But over the last two decades, enforcement of the Field Act has been plagued with bureaucratic chaos, a California Watch investigation has found. Tens of thousands of children attend schools without the required Field Act certification.


Documents show uncertified schools with missing wall anchors, dangerous lights poised above children, poor welding, slipshod emergency exits for disabled students and malfunctioning fire alarms. These problems were reported by district school inspectors and state field supervisors and then lost in a swamp of paperwork.

In many cases, the state does not know if school officials have fixed these problems. Instead, the state architect’s office issued warning letters to school board members and administrators, and walked away.

“This is a crisis,” said Steve Castellanos, the California state architect from 2000 to 2005, acknowledging the office he once ran needs an overhaul. “I think there has been a failure in the system.”

Continue reading…

Related stories:


On Shaky Ground: the investigation

An interactive map to California school districts

How Corey B. Johnson reported the story