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    Leto High waging war on rats

    Students say they're fed up with rodents scurrying around. A school official says the problem is under control.

    By MELANIE AVE, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published March 20, 2002


    TAMPA -- At Leto High School, everyone seems to have a rat tale to tell.

    They've seen them darting through the halls. Dead on the cafeteria floor. Scampering through classrooms. And even, a few years back, falling from the ceiling onto a teacher's desk.

    "Everywhere you turn, there's a rat coming out of somewhere," said sophomore Brian Leon, 16.

    "We've had rats at Leto for years," said English teacher Sarah Robinson. "It's nothing new."

    Hillsborough school officials are trying to rid the 35-year-old school of rodents. They hired a private exterminator earlier in the school year, leading some to say the problem is over.

    "Sometimes one rat that's seen by 100 or 1,000 people can be exaggerated," said Leto principal Daniel Bonilla. "Right now, I'm not under any impression we have a rat problem."

    But as part of a classroom assignment, about 20 Leto students recently sent letters to the Hillsborough School Board detailing numerous problems at the school. They noted leaky roofs. Unclean bathrooms. Poor air conditioning.

    And rats.

    One student wrote that "rats run across the floor as commonly as a student."

    Parent Joyce Deering said she is concerned about potential health threats, and wonders about her daughter's ability to do school work with rodents scampering about.

    "If I thought a rat was within 100 yards of me, I wouldn't be able to concentrate," she said.

    Rats in schools are not uncommon. The size and openness of the buildings make them cozy living quarters for rodents.

    The varmint issue at Leto, however, underscores a problem faced by many schools: How do you safely and effectively kill rats with children around?

    "We're limited to what we can and can't do," said Michael Guild, supervisor of pest control at Pinellas County Schools.

    In recent months, Pinellas officials have begun a rodent patrol at Riviera Middle School, where a recent rat sighting sent squealing children running out of two classrooms.

    Pest control experts said Florida's mild temperatures contribute to rat infestation and allow the rodents to reproduce year-round.

    "I've had schools that were . . . nice and clean with rodent problems," said Jim Williamson, a director with the Florida Pest Management Association and owner of Clearwater-based Williamson Services. "It goes along with living in Florida."

    To fight the problem, Hillsborough is using a combination of glue baits and traps. Poison, the most effective control method, is used as a last resort, since students could get access to it.

    Experts say the first step in rat removal is plugging their entry spots. But Leto is in the middle of a $9.8-million renovation, which means there are even more holes than usual for rats to crawl through, at least in the short term.

    Leto students aren't thinking much about the long term.

    Maxwell McCray, 16, said he was waiting to get his lunch earlier this year when screams erupted all around the cafeteria.

    Two administrators rushed to catch a rat.

    "One held it and the other one stepped on it," McCray recalled. "I was just trying to get my food and get out of there."

    Jahi Parker said he was sitting in his science class last year when "some girl screamed, 'What is that? What is that?' "

    He said a rat about the size of a TV remote was scurrying around the desks. The teacher trapped the rodent under a trash can and called a custodian to remove it. But the students couldn't stop talking about it for the next 20 minutes.

    Some of Leto's rat stories sound more like tall tales.

    Krista Cosgrave, 16, said her fifth period teacher has mused about cats being placed in the attic as an alternate extermination method and claims to have heard meowing.

    "I think I would be freaked out if I heard a cat meowing," said Cosgrave, admitting that the whole rat situation grosses her out.

    "Why am I going to go to a school infested with rodents?" she asked. "I'd like to go to a clean school."

    -- Melanie Ave can be reached at 226-3400 or melanie@sptimes.com.

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