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Iranian students face dangerous schools

Despite promises by government officials to improve school safety, the heating systems in some 130,000 Iranian schools remain dangerous.
Middle school students discuss earthquakes during countrywide earthquake-preparedness manoeuvres in Tehran November 29, 2007. REUTERS/Raheb Homavandi (IRAN) - RTX46FO

With the arrival of winter in Iran comes renewed fears of a repeat of the 2012 tragedy caused by a school's unsafe heating system.

On Dec. 6, Rasul Khezri, a representative from Piranshahr and Sardasht, announced to parliament that more than 130,000 classrooms in Iran did not have safe heating systems. He said, “Unsafe heating systems in classrooms are among the most important concerns.” Khezri made his remarks on the anniversary of a fire in the Enghelab elementary school, in the village of Shinabad, by the border town of Piranshahr.

On Dec. 5, 2012, an oil heater in one of the classrooms of the school for girls in Shinabad caught fire. The school’s janitor tried unsuccessfully to put it out with a fire extinguisher. When he then tried to remove the heater, it exploded, engulfing the entire classroom in flames. Out of the 37 students, two died and 29 were injured. Seven of the injured were hospitalized in intensive care, and doctors had to amputate the fingers of three of them because of the severity of the burns.

From February 1998 to December 2012, there were at least seven horrendous school fires in Iran, killing four students and severely injuring 63. The heating systems of some 86% of schools identified as being unsafe after the Shinabad incident remain dangerous.

“Right now, out of the 150,000 classrooms that were not equipped with safe heating systems, about 130,000 of them continue to have unsafe heating systems,” said Khezri during an interview with Khabar Online. “Only 20,000 schools were able to equip themselves with safe heating systems, and even that was for the most part made possible by donations.”

Shirzad Abdollahi, a Tehran-based education expert, told Al-Monitor, “If we assume that there are about 20 students in each classroom, and since there are at least 120,000 classrooms with unsafe heating systems, about 2,400,000 students, mostly in villages, are studying in classrooms that are unsafe.”

Minister of Education Ali Asghar Fani has announced that his ministry lacks the “necessary funds to replace all the oil heaters in the classrooms across the country.” He noted Nov. 17 that the ministry faces a budget deficit.

Fani had confirmed on Oct. 17 that about 120,000 classrooms were still using oil heaters and said that instead of replacing them, the ministry would insure the students. According to Fani, “This year, based on our contract with the insurance company, we have arranged for students to be partially compensated in case of fire or other similar incidents.”

Abdollahi went on, “The minister has disavowed responsibility for any future incidents that might happen,” and added, “There shouldn’t be any oil, gas or flame in the classrooms. Classrooms should be equipped with new and central heating systems.”

Requesting anonymity, a journalist working for the Reformist newspaper Etemaad told Al-Monitor, “The ministry does not have enough money to make the classrooms safe, so instead, they will insure the students. 'If they burn, we will treat them.' Where else in the world would a minister talk like that?”

According to the Tehran-based journalist, budget deficits are not a justifiable reason for not improving the conditions in schools. “In each society with a responsible government in charge, there are priorities. What he is saying is like saying that we don’t have enough money to treat the cancer patients, but if they die we will pay the blood money. A responsible government can cut military expenses to allocate budget money for important issues such as this.”

Morteza Raeisi, deputy education minister in charge of development, has predicted that starting next year, even in the best-case scenario, only half of schools will be equipped with safe heating systems. In November, he said, “We are hopeful that after receiving the entire budget allocated for this issue, before the end of the financial year [2014] and July 2015, we can raise the number from 28,000 classrooms to 78,000 classrooms. If this is achieved, then half of the classrooms in the country will be equipped with standard heating systems.”

Abdollahi is skeptical of claims by high-ranking ministry officials about gradually improving school safety. He stated, “Each year, with the start of the cold season, the Ministry of Education promises to replace the oil heaters. When spring comes, they forget about their promise and postpone it until the next winter.”

President Mohammad Khatami had prepared a bill allocating $4 billion to school safety. The bill did not go into effect during his tenure, but was passed by parliament in 2006, during Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s presidency. According to Abdollahi, however, “It was never properly utilized due to the mismanagement of Ahmadinejad’s administration.”

Given the positions of Fani and other officials at the Ministry of Education, Iranian schools are unlikely to become safer anytime soon. Under the circumstances, Abdollahi recommends that the ministry train teachers and other school officials to deal with fires. He said, “One of the issues is that the officials in schools are not trained to deal with such incidents. There are not enough fire extinguishers in schools, and even if there is a fire extinguisher, no one knows how to use it. The other issue is the safety bars that cover the windows. Because of these safety bars, students are trapped in the classroom when a fire occurs.”

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