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9 months later, rat droppings incident comes to light

Emma Sims, a former cafeteria worker at the Halifax County Middle School, stopped short of accusing Halifax County School Board members of ignoring her complaints concerning “rat droppings” she said were found in the Halifax County Middle School cafeteria in February.

She confronted school board members with her complaint Monday evening during the board’s monthly meeting.

“I want to go on record to address the issue about the rat droppings at Halifax County Middle School,” Sims said during the public comment portion of Monday night’s meeting. 

“I reported the rat droppings while I was still under contract. No, I was not issued another contract,” she said, adding, “which was their right.” 

Sims said at least eight people witnessed the rat droppings incident, but said no one else had spoken up about it.

“They made me an example. If you talk, you may not have a job. Those witnesses, the manager and myself witnessed rat droppings on the biscuits,” she said.

At the time of the discovery, Sims maintained cafeteria workers didn’t have time to prepare any more biscuits, and she added, “The manager said serve them.” 

Sims told school board members she followed what she thought was proper protocol telling the food coordinator. 

“Since we had five pans of biscuits with rat droppings, I fixed toast. When I fixed the toast, there was no rat droppings on it. Then the manager came and told me there were rat droppings on my toast.”

She said cafeteria workers tried to determine where the rat droppings were coming from. 

“When they checked the biscuits, that’s when they noticed the rat droppings on those racks. I assume when the coworker rolled through the aisle to check on the chicken, the droppings spilled on the toast, and that’s when they found that the rat droppings were already on the bread,” she said.

“That was not the first time it happened,” she added. “It had happened several times before that, but I did not know what my coworkers meant when they said, ‘Our little buddies visited today, be careful when you serve the food.”’

After listening to Sims’ claims, School Board Chairman Kim Farson responded to her remarks explaining the board responded to her claims in July when she first made individual school board members aware of the incident. 

Farson acknowledged school board members had discussed the issue in closed session and asked for an investigation to be conducted.

 “A report was given to us that an investigation was conducted. I just wanted to clarify that the board did not dismiss these claims,” Farson said.

Superintendent Dr. Merle Herndon then asked Coordinator of Food Services Lori Hale to read from a prepared statement concerning events of that day in February to which Sims alluded.

“This is the series of events surrounding the claims of Mrs. Sims that contaminated food was served during the 2012-2013 school year at HCMS. On the morning in question, there were several employees assigned to breakfast preparation. Toast was prepared from fresh bread inventory that was provided by a local bakery. The integrity of the fresh bread was compromised after it was housed in our dry storage area in HCMS,” Hale said.

“There was another employee who was not part of the breakfast preparation, but she was assigned to serve the breakfast. As she was preparing her serving line, she noticed the pans of toast did have rat or mice feces on them. At that time she notified the assistant manager who then notified the manager. The manager and the employees disposed of all the contaminated food, and the area it had been held in prior to meal service was cleaned and disinfected,” Hale continued.

“None of the food in question was ever placed on an actual serving line. None of the food in question was ever served to the students. All of the employees who were involved with the breakfast service that morning were spoken to about the incident and were directed to double check any and all food prior to and during preparation.

“Food safety was discussed at length, and proper procedure for handling food was explained,” Hale said. 

Dodson Pest Control services all of the county school’s cafeterias, and Hale said these monthly visits are documented by monthly invoices. 

“They were told of the pest issue, and the matter was handled from them at that point forward,” she said.

Hale said she wants the public to know Halifax County Food Service has nothing to hide concerning this issue. 

“Anyone who wishes to view our records, we have those on file. That would include our pest control records, and our health inspections which we do two a year,” she said.

Hale concluded her prepared remarks saying, “I would also like to point out that if contaminated food had been consumed by students and staff, there would have been reports on mass level of illness and food poisoning. To the best of my knowledge, there have been zero reports of any food poisoning or food borne illnesses at any of our schools.” 

ED-8 Trustee Walter Potts questioned the proper protocol wanting to know who was notified of the alleged event. 

“The protocol at that point in time was any staff or employees who noticed pest of any kind, they are to notify their immediate supervisor, the assistant manager or the manager,” Hale responded.

She said when she is notified of the problem, she places a maintenance work order to Maintenance Director Larry Roller. He then contacts Dodson Pest Control, and his maintenance department also goes out and evaluates the situation until Dodson can get to the school.

Hale told Potts no one notified HCMS Principal Faye Bruce or Superintendent Herndon of the incident until the school board was notified in July.  

“The person in charge of the entire building was not notified, and I find that extremely unusual,” Potts replied.  “When the board was first notified, I brought that up, and I was not, nor am I now, satisfied with the response that I received.”

“It appears to me that in hindsight, someone should have contacted Mrs. Bruce. When I was first notified about the incident, I asked Mrs. Bruce if she knew anything about it, and she told me she did not until the board did, which I find very distressing. 

“It’s not a terribly big thing, but I don’t like the way it looks because it has taken so long for it to come out to us officially,” Potts added.

He also pointed out the doubt that now surrounds this case due to the incident not coming to the public until nine months after the fact. 

 “We could have taken care of this back in February,” said Potts.

He then asked what changes had been made to the protocol procedure since the February incident was brought to the school board’s attention.

Hale explained if evidence of pests or contaminated food are found, protocol calls for notification of managers of all the schools, and all emails are then copied to all principals as well as to Dr. Herndon. 

The school superintendent then directs Hale “if she feels the board needs to be notified.” 

ED-5 Trustee Dr. Roger Long said he understands why the middle school principal was not notified at that time. 

“However, I do feel like you should be in close communication with the principal. Maybe you were following an evaluation line when you should have been following a communication line,” he told Hale.

Hale agreed, saying, “In hindsight, I do believe the principal should have been notified just to be in the know.” 

Superintendent Herndon wrapped up discussion on the issue Monday evening saying,  “The important thing is that we took care of the protocol to make sure the exterminators got in there to make sure it’s completely cleaned and taken care of.”