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“This is not an isolated incident.” Decatur school closure exposes gaps in state-required inspections

Warning tape and a "Keep Out" sign cordons off Dennis Lab School's Kaleidoscope Campus in Decatur on June 27, 2023.

DECATUR – Teachers herd children into cars and buses at the Garfield Learning Academy in southern Decatur. 

All the students hail, though, from Dennis Lab School on the western side of the city. Their two home school buildings were shuttered this summer when Decatur Public Schools District 61 realized they had major structural problems. 

“It was shocking that all of a sudden the two buildings were condemned and that they couldn’t hold classes in them anymore,” said grandfather John Shores, Jr. 

Even with a long family history at Dennis, he did not expect the disrepair to be so bad. 

DPS District 61 did not expect the problem either. 

“As a board member and parent, I did not know the Dennis buildings were as bad as they were,” said DPS Board of Education member Kevin Collins-Brown. 

“It seemed to come out of nowhere.”

State-required inspections missed the danger

Decatur Public Schools had completed the inspections required by the state, but the reports did not turn up any signs of danger. 

Illinois requires school districts to bring outside an architecture firm or another expert into each school every 10 years to check smoke detectors, tripping hazards and other code violations. 

Dennis was inspected in 2013. The only clues were tiles popping and doors unable to close, according to University of Illinois structural engineering professor James LaFave. 

“It does not seem that this 10-Year Health/Life Safety inspection is by itself likely to tease out structural engineering shortcomings,” LaFave said. 

According to an emailed statement from the Illinois State Board of Education, the 10-Year Health/Life Safety survey will not catch structural issues – unless they are manifesting in a visible way. 

District 61 only found out it had problems in the two century-old buildings when they brought in a structural engineer in May to look at ceiling leaks and other issues raised by teachers.

After the initial findings, a second engineering company confirmed that an outer wall in one building was bowing, and a main staircase in the other was pulling away from the wall. 

LaFave said these issues could have caused injuries in the right context. 

“In the case of an emergency where everybody’s trying to exit the building all at the same time, it could be packed with people and completely loaded. That’s the time when it would most likely pose the greatest vulnerability of actual structural collapse,” LaFave said. 

Parents, board members request structural inspections

Dana Granados picks her kindergartener up from Dennis Lab School’s temporary location at Garfield Learning Academy in Sept. 2023. She supports annual structural inspections, even if they are expensive.

What should be done to prevent other buildings from crumbling? 

The state should change the 10-year checklist to include structural inspections and cover the cost for districts, according to board member Kevin Collins-Brown. 

“This is not an isolated incident. I’m sure Decatur is not the only community with older schools,” Collins-Brown said. 

About 1,000 schools were listed as needing structural repairs during the last state Capital Needs Assessment Survey. The cost to repair the schools would be about $460 million dollars. 

There might be more. Only half of the districts in the state answered the survey. 

Fellow board member Alana Banks said school buildings could last longer with better inspections. 

“If we had seen this maybe 10 years ago, we could have done something to prevent it,” Banks said. 

Those picking up kids at Garfield Learning Academy agreed that schools should do regular structural inspections. 

Even if it is expensive, grandfather John Shores Jr. thought the inspections should take place twice a year. 

“Expense isn’t any cost if it’s going to protect the children and the people that work there. They shouldn’t be worried about that,” Shores said. 

The cost of the Dennis surprise has been steep

Structural engineers reported in June 2023 to Decatur Public Schools that the third story walls of the Dennis Lab School Kaleidoscope Campus (pictured) were leaning out. The engineers recommended partially demolishing the wall. Emily Hays/Illinois Public Media

Decatur Public Schools plans to spend up to $2 million on mobile classrooms this year, so all Dennis students can fit on the Garfield Learning Academy campus. 

The district is also paying to have the rest of its schools structurally inspected. 

“There’s no room to move anyone else if this were to happen again in this timeframe, but we also don’t want this to happen again,” Collins-Brown said. 

And none of this includes how much – or where the money will come from – to fix the problems at the Dennis Lab School buildings.

The students, though, are adjusting to their new setting. 

John Shores, Jr’s granddaughter takes classes in the newly constructed, mobile buildings. 

“My granddaughter doesn’t have a problem. It’s amazing how the kids have adapted to the situation,” Shores said. 

Emily Hays is a reporter for Illinois Public Media. Follow her on Twitter@amihatt.

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Emily Hays

Emily Hays started at WILL in October 2021 after three-plus years in local newsrooms in Virginia and Connecticut. She has won state awards for her housing coverage at Charlottesville Tomorrow and her education reporting at the New Haven Independent. Emily graduated from Yale University where she majored in History and South Asian Studies.

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