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Goldstein Investigates: Are Public Schools Safer Than Charters During An Earthquake?

LOS ANGELES (CBSLA) - It's a drill that's practiced every year in schools across Southern California: kids prepare for an earthquake.

But an investigation by CBSLA's David Goldstein found that because of a loophole in a state law, not all schools may be as safe as they could be.

In the devastating Long Beach earthquake of 1933, 230 schools collapsed in the magnitude 6.3 quake.

The disaster prompted new legislation for K-12 school construction called the Field Act, which mandated rigorous oversight of the construction of every public school to ensure they're safe.

But Goldstein discovered not all school buildings are created equal.

Charter schools like 18 local campuses of Alliance Schools don't have to comply with the Field Act, even though they accepted $6.4 million in taxpayer money this fiscal year to rent these buildings.

So are students safer in buildings under the Field Act?

"Students are absolutely safer in a Field Act when an earthquake happens, no question about it," said Tom Duffy with the Coalition For Adequate School Housing.

Dr. Lucy Jones was on the California Seismic Safety Commission when it recommended twice that "no public school should be exempt from the Field Act", even though there are hundreds.

This interactive map shows more than 200 charter campuses in SoCal that don't have to comply with the Field Act.

When asked whether she believes students are safer in public schools than charter schools, Jones simply replied, "Yes."

School board member Jackie Goldberg - who is no fan of charter schools - said the legislature dropped the ball by not mandating the same safety standards.

But in a statement, the California Charter Schools Association said: "California's charter public schools are safe places to learn and work. Like private schools, preschools and day care centers, charter public schools that operate in private facilities are not required to follow the Field Act. However, charter public schools must comply with the California Building Code, which contains many strict earthquake safety provisions that help ensure the safety of charter school students and staff in the event of an earthquake."

Alliance also issued this statement:

"We strive every day to ensure that our scholars are learning in buildings that meet the highest safety expectations. These high expectations, established by the State of California, are not the same as those outlined in the Field Act. As a public charter school network, our schools are subject to the California Building Standards Code to ensure safety of our students in the event of an earthquake. Those that follow the California Building Code must have an "E-Occupancy" certificate from the local building department and be inspected by the local Fire Marshal. The E-Occupancy is one of the strictest building standards, requiring these classrooms to have even more safety features than large assembly buildings like churches."

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