How safe is your school in an earthquake? Patch.com has partnered with California Watch, the state’s largest investigative reporting team, to find out.
A 19-month California Watch investigation, which was released Thursday, uncovered holes in the state's enforcement of seismic safety regulations for public schools, including the 225 educational facilities in the San Diego Unified School District (with five in La Jolla.)
California began regulating school architecture for quake safety in 1933 with the Field Act, but data taken from the Division of the State Architect’s Office shows 20,000 school projects statewide never got final safety certifications. In the crunch to get schools built within the last few decades, state architects have been lax on enforcement, California Watch reported.
A separate inventory completed nine years ago found 7,500 seismically risky school buildings in the state. Yet, California Watch says only two schools have been able to access a $200 million fund for upgrades.
Where does your school stand in all this? Patch has been digging through a maze of documents.
The state grades individual school construction projects using a four-letter rating system for compliance with quake regulations. Letter 4 is the lowest rating; Letter 1 is the best.
But judging a school’s structural safety using these ratings can be tricky. In recent years, according to California Watch, state officials upgraded hundreds of Letter 4 buildings to Letter 3 without visiting schools to verify that issues were fixed.
However, that doesn’t necessarily mean the buildings would fall apart in a quake. Because local school district officials and builders can be criminally prosecuted if students or staff are injured by tremor damage at an uncertified campus, they hire their own inspectors and don’t open any structure that isn’t deemed up to snuff, said Eric Lamoureux, a spokesman for the Division of the State Architect.
Lamoureux also downplayed concerns about Letter 4 buildings reclassified to Letter 3, saying most simply involved missing paperwork. “We don’t believe there are any significant safety issues with any of the Letter 3 projects,” he told Patch on Wednesday.
At the five public schools in La Jolla—, , , and schools—two projects of 19 projects on file with the Division of the State Architect are designated as Letter 3. The construction of a baseball clubhouse and the construction of a new score board/message center, both at La Jolla High School, are Letter 3 projects. Both projects are missing paperwork. The remaining 17 projects are Letter 1 or are projects that were never started.
Even if a school’s construction is sound, it could face other hazards. California Watch also created an interactive map that charts school locations in relation to earthquake faults, landslide areas and liquefaction zones. In liquefaction zones, soil can turn to mush during strong tremors, shaking buildings more violently and damaging underground infrastructure.
No schools in La Jolla are within close proximity to a fault line, landslide area or liquefaction zone.
However, has two projects on the AB 300 list. The AB 300 list represents school buildings that were built prior to 1976 when the laws didn’t require a stronger design. The list is an inventory of school buildings with potentially dangerous seismic hazards that require more detailed evaluations.
Muirlands ranks as a Category 1 school, which according to the Division of the State Architect are “likely to perform well and are expected (but not guaranteed) to achieve life-safety performance in an earthquake.”
Cynthia Reed-Porter, communicators supervisor with the San Diego Unified School District’s Facilities Planning and Construction Department, responded to Patch during this week’s spring break, stating that “the students are safe.” Reed-Porter and Patch will work together in the next few days and weeks to provide addition information on the seismic safety of the public schools in 92037.
This story was produced using data provided to Patch by California Watch, the state's largest investigative reporting team and part of the Center for Investigative Reporting. about Patch's partnership with California Watch.