In April, an unnamed resident posted a video of rats scurrying around a bag of trash left behind the PS/IS 217 cafeteria on the Roosevelt Islander blog. Islander Frank Farance penned lengthy posts to the Roosevelt Island Parents’ Network and local blogs accusing the school of being indifferent to a longstanding rodent problem.
It’s a characterization that school officials insist is not only unfair, but completely inaccurate.
In an interview Tuesday, Principal Mandana Beckman says her staff has been actively working to address the issue, but that it’s a complex problem that doesn’t come with quick solutions.
According to school officials, it’s impossible to address the rodents, without also discussing garbage pickup, Department of Education (DOE) regulations, fire safety, and the unique – and at times complicated – situation the school finds itself in as a City-run institution on a State-run Island.
They also emphasize that no rats have been found inside the school.
The schools says it is required to leave trash on the curb.Neighbors blame the trash for encouraging rats.
You can’t talk about rodents without also talking about trash.
Unlike most other buildings on the Island, the school’s garbage gets collected by the Department of Sanitation (DSNY). They are supposed to collect cafeteria garbage nightly, and recycling twice a week, though school officials say this doesn’t always happen.
Some residents have objected to the school’s practice of leaving clear, plastic bags of food waste heaped on the ground for garbage pickup. But school officials insist this is what they are required to do. “Anything we throw out has to be in a clear bag,” says Assistant Principal Jennifer Allen. (A fact corroborated by the DSNY website, which states, “Public schools use clear plastic bags for garbage as well as for organics and recycling.”)
“People don’t realize – the school is [run by] New York City. Just because it happens on Roosevelt Island doesn’t mean Island sanitation or AVAC applies. We don’t have a private carrier contracted out by the school,” adds Beckman.
As to the suggestion that they use trash bins like some businesses do, they explain that Sanitation won’t take garbage like that. “They don’t want us to use those dumpsters. When they rot out at other schools, they don’t replace them.”
The custodial staff has requested bins that they can temporarily store trash in while it awaits pickup, but even then, they will still have to remove bags and place them on the ground before DSNY comes to pick them up.
The school also points out that they are not the only enticement for the neighborhood rats. The garbage across the way, outside 2-4-8 River Road is also not enclosed in dumpsters or trash bins. But it isn’t as much of an eyesore because it’s surrounded by a fence. Beckman says, “It looks prettier, but it’s still open garbage. A fence is not a deterrent for the rats, they come out of there all of the time.”
Rats have built nests in planter boxes behind the school.
Fire Safety and Trees
According to Beckman, the rodent problem around the school was recently made more obvious after the DOE cut down a group of trees behind the building to deal with fire-safety issues.
Over the years, the school had received multiple violations for not having proper egress from the cafeteria due to the trees in the area. These violations can be found on the Department of Buildings (DOB) website. Two emergency egresses are a mandatory part of a Department of Education (DOE) School Safety Plan. Additionally, says Allen “you need to land out of the building onto a paved surface.”
Years ago, the area behind the cafeteria had a patio, but it had to be removed after the pavers were lifted up by the tree roots.
In January, to make way for the necessary paving, the trees were removed; the stumps were later ground down. The next step, according to the school, is to pave the area to create the required emergency egress.
Two weeks ago, a couple of contractors came as part of a bidding process. “This takes a while,” says Beckman. “It has to be an open bid; we don’t have a mason that the school sends.”
The result of all of this, she says, is that cutting down the trees exposed the rat nests that had been buried among the roots. “That’s where they were nesting, not to mention there are rats everywhere on the Island, not just here. There were holes in and around the roots [before], but the rats just didn’t come out.”
With the roots ground down, the rats now nest, among other places, in the planters along the school wall. With paving, though, these too will be ripped out. Once the area is all paved, Beckman says, the rat problem should abate quite a bit.
But she also acknowledges that so long as there is garbage in the area, there will also be rats.
In the meantime, the school has put in additional bait stations which are monitored regularly. They expect that once the space is paved, and assuming sanitation comes regularly, the area will be kept a lot cleaner. “We do go out and sweep up the garbage, but with asphalt it will be kept a lot cleaner. We will be able to hose it down and disinfect it.”
Representatives from the school have met with both the Roosevelt Island Operating Corporation (RIOC) and the Roosevelt Island Residents Association (RIRA) about the issue. Although they are aware that the school, like NYC Health + Hospitals/Coler, and Cornell Tech is not on State-leased land, but is City property, they hope that because the school is part of the Island community that some kind of help can be offered.
In her President’s Report at Thursday’s RIOC Board meeting, Susan Rosenthal acknowledged the issue and discussed next steps. “The [DSNY] has created a rat colony,” she said. “Our exterminator estimated that 25 rats live there. We’re taking it very seriously. [The Island public school] is not not on State property, but we did speak to the principal. Solving this problem will require paving and a different manner of handling food stuff, and the school is stuck with a lot of procurement issues [like RIOC, they are required to have public bids]...For us to be involved in any way we have to involve the City.”
Island animal activist Rossana Ceruzzi has also met with school administrators. “We had a great meeting and exchanged fruitful information and ideas with the principal and staff,” she said.“We welcome the opportunity to continue the dialogue during a follow-up meeting in the near future and look forward to meeting with President/CEO of RIOC Susan Rosenthal tomorrow.”
One suggestion Ceruzzi communicated to the school is a mini cat sanctuary. She says, “Only cats are proven to keep rodents on the run. Cats will do a far better job than any chemical rodenticides and/or exterminators. And cats work 24/7. I think it would also be a great incentive to children for a mini community service...They have been successfully ‘working’ in delis throughout the City, why not for a school?”
Beckman says, “Our challenge has been, who are we complaining to? Our council members don’t have as much of a say in Queens, where our garbage is picked up from.” Beckman echoes the frustration of many Islanders before her. Many Island services come from Queens, but the accountability for those services, in the form of our elected representatives, lies on the other side of the river.
Of the Department of Sanitation, she says, “I think they forget sometimes. They are supposed to come five days a week. Do they? This year has been much better. Any long holiday, we send them a memo to remind them to pick up the garbage. In summer we have had them not come for a month. And [the NYC School Food program] is here all summer. Whoever is in charge of one doesn’t seem to get the message from the other. So we leave them messages. We want to hold someone accountable on that end. That would alleviate all of the problems.”
She also adds, “You have no idea how many times we’ve taken a cart and wheeled our garbage to the dumpster.”
One thing parents and the community members shouldn’t be concerned about, however, says Beckman, is the school’s cleanliness. “This is one of the cleanest schools.”
The research bears that out. Last November, the Independent Democratic Conference conducted an investigation to inform parents about the state of food safety at their children’s school cafeteria. The ultimate goal was to introduce legislation that will require the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DOHMH) to issue each school cafeteria a letter grade that is made public to all parents.
Currently, school cafeterias are inspected at least once a year. Violations for rat activity are typically issued when evidence of rats, like their excreta, is found. In the 2015-16 school year, four schools were issued violations for evidence of rat activity: I.S. 218 in Manhattan, found in January 2016; P.S. 197 in Brooklyn, found in January 2016; P.S. 25 in the Bronx, found in November 2015; and P.S. 78 in Staten Island, found in March 2016.
At the end of her President’s Report, Rosenthal said, “This is a very serious matter. I feel very positive that we will solve it.”