The students smelled a rat. A dead one. It was rotting inside a wall of their aging school building.
The stench this past December at Kemps Landing Magnet School wasn’t the first sign of a rodent infestation at the middle school for academically gifted students, but it was the most serious, administrators said.
That was until Tuesday, when a librarian spotted a rat scrambling across the floor.
“At that point, we decided to go ahead and close the library for the day,” Principal Charles Foster said. Administrators also canceled all after-school programs, including a one-act play scheduled for that night.
The school system learned about the infestation in September, said Jim Morris, the division’s assistant director of environmental management. “We’ve quietly been doing everything we can to eliminate the problem since then,” he said.
The Pilot first learned of the infestation after examining hundreds of city emails obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request. A science teacher at Kemps Landing wrote to a City Council member on March 16 complaining about rats disrupting her lessons.
It’s even worse when the rodents die, the teacher wrote in the email. “The stench coming from behind the walls and ceiling is overwhelming,” she said.
School officials trace the problem to last summer, when crews rewired the 54-year-old building while installing interactive whiteboards throughout the school. The workers left several gaping holes in the walls, Morris said, giving rodents an easy entryway.
The infestation worsened as temperatures dropped. After the first dead-rat incident, prior to Christmas break, the school increased its efforts to control and eliminate the problem.
A private exterminator under contract with the school system visits Kemps Landing daily to check dozens of traps that have been placed above ceiling panels.
Students seeking additional help with homework are no longer allowed to eat lunch with teachers in classrooms.
And custodians have been making extra rounds to ensure no food is left on floors in the cafeteria or elsewhere, said Larry Ames, director of custodial services.
“Our main concern is to make sure we provide a safe, clean environment for our students,” he said.
School officials said they know of no other buildings in the system that have experienced a rodent infestation of this magnitude in recent years.
Nationally, however, many schools grapple with rodents, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. The issue is so prevalent, the agency has published a tipsheet on dealing with rats and mice.
“I’m quite certain other schools have rodents,” said Foster, the Kemps Landing principal. “That doesn’t mean we’re taking this lightly. Our staff is doing everything they can.”
But parents and students say the infestation seems to be worsening.
Wendy Chandler said her granddaughter is terrified she’ll find a rat in her book bag. Two of the girl’s friends ran away screaming last month when they saw one in the restroom, she said.
“It has become a real distraction,” Chandler said. “And this is where we’re sending our best and brightest.”
Conditions at the school have been a point of contention among parents for several years. The building on Jericho Road, built in 1957 as Aragona Elementary, was listed “in deplorable condition” in a 2007 study.
As part of its $636.1 million budget, the School Board last month recommended fast-tracking plans to build a consolidated facility to replace Kemps Landing and Old Donation Center, the system’s gifted elementary school. The plan would move the construction start date from 2018 to 2014.
The budget proposed last week by Virginia Beach Manager Jim Spore, however, does not include funding to accelerate construction of the gifted academy.
In the wake of the rodent infestation, Kemps Landing parents started an online petition asking City Council to fund construction of the new school this year. The petition had garnered about 500 signatures by Thursday afternoon.
“The rat infestation is just the latest in a series of problems with the building,” said Mary Rumble, president of the Kemps Landing PTA. “That’s what happens when you have an old building. It’s a shame we have to send our children to school under these conditions.”