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School Siting Guidelines Limitations

Decisions on school siting are complicated and in many instances will involve issues where there are scientific and technical uncertainties. Generally, state, tribal and local governments decide where to locate schools. With few exceptions (e.g., a school located on a Department of Defense base or funded and/or operated by the Bureau of Indian Education), the federal government does not have authority over school siting decisions.

While EPA does not have the statutory authority to control school siting decisions directly, it administers federal environmental laws that may apply to or be relevant to location evaluation, including site assessment and cleanup. In many cases, states have similar authorities to address site cleanup, and some states and tribes also have additional authorities (e.g., certain land use authorities) that may be relevant to school location decisions. No single set of national guidelines can reflect the widely divergent situations and institutional relationships that exist throughout the education system in the United States. Because each state, tribe and community has or will develop their own location evaluation and selection procedures, the recommendations contained in EPA's School Siting Guidelines are designed to provide a general guide that should be adapted to local situations.

The guidelines are designed to support state, tribal and community decision makers in evaluating their existing school processes and policies to address environmental factors in school siting and construction decisions, especially when the presence of contamination may pose a threat to a safe learning environment. These guidelines do not impose legally binding requirements on EPA, states, tribes, local governments, Local Education Agency (LEA) or the regulated community, and may not apply to a particular situation based upon the circumstances. These guidelines do not pre-empt, supersede or serve as a substitute for state, tribal or local school site or location selection policies or requirements.

Economic, racial and ethnic segregation is a continuing challenge across the country. More diverse schools can provide educational as well as life attainment benefits to all school age children.1 While community centered schools can be part of improved educational, economic, community and public health outcomes for children, families and neighborhoods, LEAs should balance these issues with meeting the goal of diverse school populations. Techniques are available to help achieve the multiple goals of diverse student populations and schools located within the communities they serve. The Resources page of the guidelines website contains information about techniques that have been identified to support these goals. While these issues are beyond the scope of these guidelines, the Resources page of the guidelines website also contains links to select studies on school segregation trends and causes.

It is beyond the scope of these guidelines to discuss the requirements of federal civil rights laws that apply to public school districts and may be relevant to school siting decisions. These civil rights laws include Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color or national origin in federally assisted programs or activities. EPA's regulations implementing Title VI prohibit both intentional discrimination and facially neutral policies and practices that result in discriminatory effects, including siting decisions.2

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IMPORTANT: The school siting guidelines are NOT designed for retroactive application to previous school siting decisions. They are designed to inform and improve the consideration of environmental factors in the school siting decision-making process going forward. In developing these guidelines, EPA seeks to strengthen information exchange and cooperation between LEAs, state and tribal education agencies and their environmental counterparts to better serve school children, parents, staff and their communities in providing safe school environments. Many schools across the country may be located in proximity to one or more of the potential hazards discussed within the guidelines. Due to many factors that affect exposure to environmental hazards and based on the regulations and protective measures that can be applied, proximity of a school to nearby sources of environmental contaminants may not pose unacceptable risks.

EPA recommends that districts periodically inspect existing schools for potential environmental health and safety risks using tools designed for that purpose such as the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health's Safety Checklist Program for Schools.  Where deficiencies are found, EPA recommends steps to reduce student and staff exposure to potential hazards be identified and implemented. Keeping children safe from environmental exposures at school does not end with site selection, or even materials selection during construction; the health of students and staff in schools is supported by an ongoing attention to commitment to healthy school environments. EPA has a considerable body of guidance and regulations that are specifically geared toward existing schools, which is available on EPA's Schools site.

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2 EPA's Office of Civil Rights and the Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights are available to provide technical assistance to districts concerning applicable civil rights laws. See agency regulations implementing Title VI, for example, EPA's Title VI regulations, 40 C.F.R. Part 7, and the U.S. Department of Education's Title VI regulations, 34 C.F.R. Part 100. The Title VI regulations prohibit, among other things, race, color or national origin discrimination in siting decisions. In addition to prohibiting discrimination in siting decisions, among other things, the civil rights laws establish other requirements relevant to the decision-making process, such as requirements pertaining to effective communication with limited English proficient persons and individuals with ties and requirements pertaining to access by individuals with disabilities. See U.S. Department of Justice regulations implementing Title II, 28 C.F.R. Part 35, and Title III, 28 C.F.R. Part 36, of the Americans with Disabilities Act, and U.S. Department of Education's regulations implementing Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, 34 C.F.R. Part 104.

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