The Field Act for Private Schools

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.


Earthquakes Safety and Private Schools – An Update from the November 2017 Seismic Safety Commission Meeting

At the November 9, 2017 meeting of the Seismic Safety Commission staff member and licensed structural engineer Fred Turner presented an update on the earthquake safety of public schools.

He confirmed that over 530,000 California students are enrolled in private K-12 schools, representing almost 8% of all K-12 students statewide.  There are 3,075 schools of which 78% are religious and 22% secular and a larger, but unknown number of buildings. And these buildings have a wide spread of age, some date before 1933 and the Long Beach earthquake that lead to the Field Act, which mandated high safety standards for schools that receive public funding.

But the Field Act does not apply to private schools and this leaves student attending these institutions potentially at higher risk from earthquake related harm.  November was not the first time that the Seismic Safety Commission has examined the topic and the need remains today.  San Francisco has recently mandated inspection of private schools, and it is an important first step.

Mr. Turner, in his testimony before the Commission, reiterated the need for better standards and summarized the prior Commission recommendations, which are still relevant today:

  • Complete seismic evaluations & ratings of all private schools
  • Modify Private Schools Seismic Safety Act to support compliance
  • Provide education & training to local governments which oversee implementation of the Private Schools Seismic Safety Act
  • Support private schools in their efforts to improve structural safety
  • Evaluate & require nonstructural retrofits, and
  • Regulate securing of school contents.

These are important activities to protect the lives and health of over 500,000 students in California. Attending a private school should not bring with it higher risk of earthquake related injury or death.


Earthquakes and Private School Safety


Over half of a million California students are enrolled in private K-12 schools.  That is a bit under 8% of the total, but in some place, like San Francisco, the percentage can be as high as 28-30% of students in private schools.  But this is not a Post about private vs. public school education, it is one about private school safety, or lack of earthquake safety in private schools.

In March of 1933 a Magnitude 6.4 earthquake stuck Long Beach, California and destroyed 70 schools and severely damaged another 120. Fortunately, the quake occurred after schools were closed. A month later California Governor James Rolph signed into law the Field Act, mandating the seismic safety of California schools.  This legislation and its successor laws and regulations, are considered the gold standard for seismic safety in schools worldwide.

But the law does not apply to private schools, and that leaves students attending private schools at risk of being in buildings that are possibly unsafe in an earthquake.  Although there is legislation that had the intent to provide all students safe buildings (the Private Schools Building Safety Act of 1986), there is no firm mandate and thus private school structures are less likely to be as safe as those public school buildings covered by the Field Act.

The issue of private school safety has been examined for over 13 years by the Seismic Safety Commission, in reports in 2004 and 2009 and testimony before the Commission in 2017.  The easiest solution is to have all California schools covered under Field Act requirements.