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California

Newport-Mesa school district appeals state fines over rat infestation and other problems

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Newport Harbor High School students and teachers demonstrate in 2018 to protest what they described as a rat infestation at the school’s Dodge Hall, where math and world language classes are held.
(Daily Pilot)

The Newport-Mesa Unified School District has appealed about $20,000 in state fines for various workplace violations at three of its campuses, including plumbing and maintenance issues and a rodent infestation problem at one high school that was so bad it triggered a student walkout last year.

The fines are the result of three separate inspections by the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health that were conducted in May, June and November 2018. The fines were initially levied last December, but the district is appealing.

District spokeswoman Annette Franco said Newport-Mesa declined to comment on the case because of the legal issues involved.

“We prioritize safety of our students and staff and continually evaluate and improve upon our practices,” she said.

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Cal/OSHA’s investigation was triggered by a complaint filed by the Newport-Mesa Federation of Teachers after students at Newport Harbor High School staged a walkout in April 2018 to protest the rodent problem at the campus.

About 150 students, chanting and holding signs bearing slogans such as “Congrats, we have rats” and “The plague, Part II,” protested in front of the campus administration building during a school day.

Teachers and students said they had complained for months about a rat infestation at the school’s Dodge Hall, where math and world language classes are held. They told about live and dead rodents, rat urine and blood from a rat crushed in a trap on and around desks.

Around the same time, representatives of the Orange County Mosquito and Vector Control District visited the campus, and a county health worker who was at the school for a routine inspection reported vermin evidence elsewhere, including rat droppings around a cafeteria trash bin.

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The district said at the time that it was limiting rodents’ potential access by sealing holes in walls, adding screens in vents, installing sweeps under doors and adding rodent-resistant trash cans.

Newport Harbor’s rat problems stretched back to at least 2016, when several were seen and trapped in Dodge Hall classrooms. School administrators blamed that infestation on construction work on the school’s stadium and a nearby church, saying it likely drove the pests into the classrooms.

Here is the breakdown of the state fines levied against the district’s schools:

*Newport Harbor High School, $2,690: Four alleged violations, including “harborage of insects, rodents or other vermin,” failure to verify that a hazard assessment had been done for custodians, a lack of plans for prevention of worker heat illness and a lack of a respiratory protection program

*Corona del Mar Middle and High schools, $3,420: Five alleged violations, including failure to document inspections and maintenance of school heating, cooling and ventilation systems, blocking electrical equipment, and rodent, hazard assessment and respiratory protection violations similar to those alleged at Newport Harbor High

*Costa Mesa High School, $13,095: Nine alleged violations, including improper chemical storage, an open electrical cabinet, a blocked exit, and rodent, hazard assessment and respiratory protection issues

The biggest-ticket problems cited at Costa Mesa High were for poor water flow in an emergency eyewash station in a science lab and failure to activate the eyewash stations and showers in several science classrooms each month to test and flush the lines, as required by state law. Eyewashes and showers are intended to rinse off hazardous chemicals in case of accidental splattering or other exposure.

Davis is a writer for Times Community News.


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