Private School Safety – Why the difference, and what has changed?

In an earlier Post we discussed the Field Act, its origins in the 1933 Long Beach earthquake, and how it has protected public school children in California ever since. The Commission has looked at the Field Act, what it covers and does not cover. Key to the power of the Field Act is the requirement that the Division of the State Architect (DSA) approve plans for all K-12 and public community colleges. Other schools, including pre-schools and private and charter schools, are not subject to DSA oversight but rather local zoning and planning departments, and thus do not receive the same uniform review.

There is little question that compliance with the Field Act costs additional money in school construction, but how much is often debated. Less contentious is the fact that it is often difficult to find existing buildings that are Field Act compliant, thus it’s hard for preschool and charter schools to find suitable locations when they are first starting up, unless they build new or retrofit.

During a 1952 earthquake in Kern County, only one out of the 18 Field Act schools suffered even moderate damage, whereas 30 out of the 40 non-Field Act schools were damaged, according to a draft report by the Seismic Safety Commission. But changes is occurring as overall building codes are being improved for seismic safety requirements, and newer school buildings, both private and public, seem to have fared well in recent earthquakes, but not in all cases.

In response, at least one California city has formalized the requirement. In 2014 San Francisco passed Ordinance 202-14 requiring all private elementary and secondary schools to obtain an earthquake evaluation of their campus.

According to a study by the California Seismic Safety Commission (SSC), 29.1% of school children in San Francisco attend private schools—the highest among all California counties.