Community members say there's no excuse for the critters making their way through the halls and classrooms of Brainerd High School.
Since school began in early August, students and teachers have reported seeing snakes, rats and vermin droppings inside the school. Hamilton County education officials say a $6.2 million replacement of Brainerd's heating and air-conditioning system may have disturbed rats, mice and snakes. Officials say they've sent both school system exterminators and outside contractors to address the problem.
"This is really just to give the school community a better feeling of security," said Gary Waters, who oversees facilities for the Hamilton County Department of Education. "That's why we brought in an outside firm, so it wasn't just HCDE saying everything is fine."
But community members who are calling attention to the problem say students shouldn't be subjected to such conditions. Cynthia Stanley-Cash, a Brainerd community activist who has been meeting with school officials, said the administration hasn't taken the issue seriously.
"The candy machine is a cafeteria for the rats. And the rats are food for the snakes. It's just the wild, wild West over there for the critters," she said.
Stanley-Cash and other community leaders have been meeting with school leaders since Brainerd Principal Uras Agee fired the school's legendary basketball coach, Robert High, last spring. Parents and community members lobbied for High's reinstatement. Though they were unsuccessful, they vowed to stay active in the school.
Community member Gwen Blackmon said she noticed droppings on a visit to the school earlier this fall. And then she heard stories of vermin in the vending machines and snakes being found in and outside the school. Several community members reported such infestations, though Waters was unsure of the extent of the problems.
"They're sweeping it under the rug like it's not anything serious," she said. "It's been going on since school began. And we have worked to go through all the right channels to report it."
Blackmon said the school should have addressed the problem early on, before the community started raising a fuss.
"Are they going to wait for our kids to get physically hurt before they do something?" she said.
But staffers say so far the problems haven't caused much of an interruption to classes.
Geography teacher Rachel Swafford said the construction has probably caused much of the problem, as crews have worked on pipes, air ducts and underground in the school's steam tunnels. But she said there hasn't been much distraction, just occasional stories of mouse or snake sightings.
Brainerd's assistant principal, Charles Mitchell, said the pests haven't disrupted learning. School administrators have turned the problems over to the central office, he said, and have seen few problems day to day.
Despite the problem, Mitchell said good things are happening at the school. Test scores are rising. The school's graduation rate is up nearly 20 percentage points year over year. And dropouts are down.
"Even in an old facility, we're doing what we can," Mitchell said.
Contact staff writer Kevin Hardy at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6249.