Houston private school had no sprinklers, alarm, emergency exits

Fire marshals closed a northwest Harris County private school this week after inspectors discovered the building didn’t have sprinklers, fire alarms, emergency exits or other safety measures required by state and local laws, officials said.

There were 15 students and an unknown number of school personnel inside River Oaks Academy, in a strip mall at 7453 Hollister St., when the fire marshal’s office performed a spot inspection, officials said. Occupants were ordered to leave the building and the Harris County Fire Marshal’s Office issued a stop-work order until all the safety violations have been addressed.

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“There’s a lot of outstanding private schools, and it’s not that this is not a good private school, but for whatever reason they didn’t follow the procedures required,” said Harris County Fire Marshal Laurie Christensen.

A permit is not just a piece of paper, it’s proof that a school has followed all the steps to make sure that people in the building are prepared for and protected against fires and other dangers, Christensen said.

The school on Hollister Street appears to have been recently established and the campus is so new that this week it still had a “coming soon” sign in front of the academy, which, officials said, occupies about 2,000 square feet.

That sign caught the attention of a county fire inspector, who checked the agency’s records to see if the school had all of its proper permits, Christensen said. It didn’t; and the inspector went inside the building to investigate further, she said.

The inspector found multiple violations inside, said Chad Shaw, a deputy chief fire marshal. The building didn’t have sprinklers or fire alarms. The building’s doors didn’t open outward, which would be a hazard in an evacuation. There were open electrical wires, which Shaw flagged as a safety hazard.

“Anybody would have been able to touch (them) and potentially (could have) been electrocuted,” Shaw said of the wires.

He said the building the school occupies appeared to have previously been a shopping center and “not a normal school building.”

The school also didn’t have an emergency response plan filed with the county, Shaw said.

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He noted that there was “really nothing” that a normal business would have been required to file that River Oaks Academy had filed with county officials.

No charges or fines have been issued over the problems at the building, Christensen said. Students and workers will not be permitted back in building until the issues cited have been addressed, Shaw said.

Who exactly is owns and runs the school is unclear.

The school has the same name as another private school on Richmond Avenue in Houston. The River Oaks Academy on Richmond Avenue was founded in 1988 and specializes in teaching students with special needs, according to its website. The Houston Chronicle noted that award winning ice skater Tara Lapinski graduated from the Richmond Avenue campus in 2000.

A Facebook page appears to link the two schools. A woman named Genna Ha identifies herself the principal of both schools in a video marketing the school to international students. In one video on the page, Ha says the academy has a second campus with better facilities, including a dorm, library and gymnasium. There’s no mention of a second campus the River Oaks Academy website and the Hollister location also doesn’t appear on a list of accredited schools kept by the Texas Private School Accreditation Commission.

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