School insect policy debated

Leaders question notification methods on chemical controls

`A paperwork nightmare'

Other administrators say costs low, parents have accepted plan

August 02, 1999|By David L. Greene | David L. Greene,SUN STAFF

Parents of schoolchildren will be learning quite a bit about bugs this year. And rodents. And weeds.

A state law that will take effect this fall -- it was enacted last year after an intense lobbying effort by parents -- requires all elementary schools to notify parents by letter whenever a pesticide is to be used in a building. Many systems are voluntarily implementing the procedure in middle and high schools as well.

Pests are no new problem in Maryland schools.

Last year alone, an army of carpenter ants attacked a portable classroom at Spring Garden Elementary in Hampstead.

Roaches roamed the halls of Francis Scott Key High School in Union Bridge.

A determined groundhog built a home beneath a portable classroom at West Meade Elementary in Anne Arundel County.

What was left of its prey created a problem for students studying above.

"They had an indoor air-quality problem," recalled Daniel LaHart, environmental manager for Anne Arundel schools.

But as administrators work out the details this summer of how they will put the regulation into effect, some wonder quietly whether it was a knee-jerk reaction by state lawmakers that will mean only more photocopying -- and more worrying by parents about a problem that, to some, appears not that serious.

Over 15 years, about five incidents of pesticide misuse in a school have been reported to the state Department of Agriculture.

A big concern among those implementing the law is how Mom or Dad will react when a letter goes home saying, for example, that phenothrin, a wasp and hornet killer, will be sprayed in the classroom and that exposure could result in skin irritation or dermatitis.

Kathleen Sanner, the Carroll County administrator overseeing pest management, said such harmful effects are worst-case scenarios and very unlikely because pesticides are usually sprayed in schools on evenings or weekends when buildings are empty.

"Used safely, the average person isn't going to know the chemical was even used," she said. "We don't want people to panic."

Integrated management

The new notification requirement is part of a broader law that requires public schools to adopt an "integrated pest management" program this year.

It's an approach to pest control that exhausts other methods of removal before turning to chemicals.

The case of the carpenter ants demonstrates how this works. In the fall, ants attacked one of 10 portable classrooms at Spring Garden Elementary.

"Streams of them," remembers Principal Gloria D. Julius. "You could see them marching up the floor to the walls."

Ten years ago, an exterminator might have been called to douse the area with chemicals. But in Carroll, where integrated pest management is in practice, maintenance crews were brought in to vacuum because the cause might have been a case of unswept crumbs.

Traps were set to catch the insects. Only when none of the alternatives worked was a pesticide used to kill the ants.

Students at Francis Scott Key High are beginning to practice chemical-free pest control on their own.

Principal George Phillips said students rarely panic and pesticides rarely have to be used when roaches are spotted in the halls -- and they often are.

"A roach is a roach is a roach," Phillips said, adding that students who see one "just step on it."

Applications down

Ed Crow, an entomologist with the state Department of Agriculture who is helping coordinate pest management in schools statewide, said most systems began moving toward the integrated approach several years ago.

Though the department does not keep statistics, the number of pesticide applications seems to be falling, school systems report.

But the notification procedures are giving school systems headaches.

Some complain that lawmakers are demanding too much without providing extra money. The law requires that schools inform all parents and staff at the beginning of the year about what types of pesticides are used.

Lawmakers are unsympathetic.

"Please, don't tell us you can't put one more piece of paper in the backpack," said Del. George W. Owings III, a Calvert County Democrat and a sponsor of the law.

Other flaws

But Susan Krebs, a school board member in Carroll County, believes the law has other flaws. There is no guarantee, she said, that a notice stuffed into a student's backpack will ever land in the hands of parents.

Krebs, who traveled as a parent two years ago to Annapolis to support pest-management notification, favored a different method: All parents would sign a one-time form at the beginning of the year saying they had reviewed the list of chemicals that could be used in schools.

Concerned parents, or those whose children have allergies, could put themselves on a list and administrators would know whom to contact.

Photocopying and distributing notices to all 2,500 students at Westminster High School each time a spray is used, Krebs said, is a waste and "a paperwork nightmare."

The law allows middle and high schools to notify parents who put themselves on a list at the start of school.

However, Carroll administrators, who believe keeping such lists would be more burdensome, plan to notify everyone in the school.

Voluntary notification

Anne Arundel County schools began notifying parents voluntarily last year.

LaHart, the environmental manager there, said he did not receive any calls from parents frightened by the health risks stated in the letters.

Parents are smart enough to know, LaHart said, that warning labels assume the worst.

LaHart added that the additional photocopying expenses for the school system -- a few thousand dollars -- were negligible.

But Phillips, the principal at Francis Scott Key High, said, "It's just one more expectation for the administration."

Pub Date: 8/02/99

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