County schools deal with 4,300 concerns found during thorough fire and safety inspections.
By JAY CRIDLIN
Published March 12, 2004
GIBSONTON - The problem seems like a minor one: Giant fans, jutting from the wall through wire cages, circulating air between the hallways and classrooms at Eisenhower Middle School.
"This is a common occurrence in older buildings in the district," said Glen Lathers, safety manager for the of Hillsborough school district. "This is how you used to cool before air conditioning."
The fans may seem innocuous, but the fire marshal has decided they need to go.
If fire broke out in a classroom, smoke could spill into the hall, compromising an escape route, said Ozell Hayes III, a safety specialist for schools in south Hillsborough County.
"You're always supposed to be able to withstand fire for at least one hour, and be smoke-tight in the hall," he said.
The fans, mentioned in a February school safety report, were among 49 fire and safety code violations found last school year at Eisenhower Middle, the second highest total of any elementary or middle school in Hillsborough County.
Other infractions at the school, which is undergoing massive renovations, include a nailed-shut classroom door, loose table saws in the wood shop and a fire extinguisher missing from the boys' locker room.
Such infractions aren't unique to Eisenhower. School officials have spent the past month reviewing nearly 4,300 safety concerns in county schools, including about 2,000 Florida Fire Prevention Code violations.
It's the first time schools have been subject to that code, and the first time safety inspections have been conducted in full by both the Florida Department of Education and the state Fire Marshal's Office. Now, the Fire Marshal's Office has authority to shut down schools that don't comply with regulations.
With the inspection reports came a new, pressing task for school administrators: Correct as many of those deficiencies as quickly as possible.
"It's like an audit," says Susan Turner, principal at Mintz Elementary in Brandon. "It's not a pleasant feeling."
In all, safety code violations in Hillsborough schools increased by as much as 10 percent between 2001-02 and 2002-03, Lathers said.
Of the seven county high schools with the most violations in 2003, five are in the greater Brandon area: East Bay, with 64 violations; Plant City, 60; Armwood, 52; Durant, 45; and Brandon, 44.
The safety deficiencies aren't surprising, Lathers said, given the age of the campuses. Durant High is 9 years old, but Armwood, Brandon, East Bay and Plant City are all at least 20. Constantly changing fire and safety codes have turned once state-of-the-art schools into buildings that could be deemed unsafe.
The school district also identified "repeat instances of noncompliance" in 14 elementary and middle schools, six of which are east of Tampa: Brooker, Clair-Mel, Mintz and Seffner elementary schools, and Eisenhower and Pierce middle schools.
Few of the violations pose an immediate safety risk to students - most are along the lines of a broken exit sign or an outdated electrical socket - but Lathers said each one is important to fix.
"When you panic, things that don't appear to be a problem will become a problem," he said.
Still, some administrators are concerned that those minor infractions may create an impression that their school is unsafe.
"When you hear "safety violations,' you think, "Oh!"' said Clair-Mel principal Shirley Sanchez, whose school was being renovated at the time of the inspection. "But these were minor violations, like a tag expired on a fire extinguisher."
Mintz principal Susan Turner said she was "disturbed" to learn her school was classified as a repeat violator.
"It makes me feel that I have not done my job properly," she said. "I should be responsible for making sure the school is safe."
The school district produced a Safety Inspection Corrective Action Plan, available on its Web site, that outlines each infraction and the department responsible for correcting it. For example, a school custodian can move storage boxes away from electrical equipment but may lack resources to erect a fence around a retention pond. A task like that would be the responsibility of the school district's operations department, Lathers said.
When the list came out, Danny Pickern, the assistant principal of administration at Armwood, met with custodians to discuss immediate changes.
"When you get a list like this, you look and see what can create the most problems, concerns, dangers for the kids, and you take care of them," said Pickern. "My son's here, so believe me when I say I'm not going to have anything unsafe here."
Pickern said most of the Seffner school's 52 violations have already been corrected.
"A lot of things are contingent upon other people coming in and giving us some assistance, but we're on top of it," he said. "Nothing that we have here is unsafe for our kids, I can tell you that."
Likewise, both Sanchez and Turner said that most, if not all, of their schools' infractions had already been cleaned up.
In a world where school funding is always at a premium, Lathers said, schools may have to wait five years or more for the county to fix some of the problems.
"Every hazard we can remove, we would like to remove," Lathers said. "In a perfect world, if we had our way, we would take everything out and fix everything so no one would ever get hurt for any reason. But I don't know that we'll ever get there."
To review the Florida Fire Prevention Code violations at a particular school, visit the Hillsborough County School District Web site at www.sdhc.k12.fl.us Under the scrolling "News" section, click "Safety Inspection Corrective Action Plan 2002-2003" for a link to the complete report.