The Cheltenham Center, a Prince George's County school for emotionally disturbed children, was forced to close down for a day yesterday as fumigators attempted to rid the school and its gym of an infestation of bird lice.
The 40 children who board at the center - the only one of its type in Maryland - were kept in their dormitory rooms where teachers tutored them. The school's 40 day pupils stayed home while authorities tried to correct the latest in a series of health problems at the special education facility.
"Some of our residents and staff are terrified about the lice," said Sarah Holloway, residential coordinator at the facility, which is located on the grounds of Boy's Village, a juvenile corrections institution in Cheltenham.
"It's been a frightening experience for everyone," she added. "Last week we washed the kids and sprayed them with disinfectant."
The lice, which officials believe were the legacy of an earlier problem the school had with pigeons, are the most serious of a series of difficulties school officials have had with pests.
In the 3 1/2 years since the program opened, the 19-year-old school building has been invaded numerous times by rats, mice, pigeons and roaches, school officials said yesterday.
The Cheltenham program was started as a joint effort of the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene and the Prince George's County school board to serve emotionally disturbed children in Prince George's and Charles, Calvert and St. Mary's counties.
But since the center opened, state and county officials have carried on a continual argument over who is recurrent problems with pests, and a variety of other maintenance problems.
Staff psychologist Stan Greenberg said that, aside from the center's recent difficulties in keeping the children free of lice, no injuries or illnesses have resulted from the center's problems.
Stanley Platman, assistant state secretary for mental health and addictions said yesterday that the state was doing everything it could for the Cheltehham program. "The buildings are old. They're really outdated. We're aware of these problems. There's an ongoing effort to do reasonable renovation and put it our capital budget a request for a new facility."
State officials also note that $20,000 has been promised for a study of Cheltenham. And they attribute much of the damage at the school to the students, many of whom have been sent there for "acting out."
"We're seeing a different population of students," said Harold Johnson, superintendent of the state funded Boys Village, whose facilities the Cheltenham Center is using "They're emotionally disturbed. They have a tendency to be destructive."
A tour yesterday of the just-fumigated school, set in a landscape of fields and woods, revealed
Four backed-up filthy toilets - two located adjacent to classrooms, two adjoining "time-out" rooms for disruptive students.
Pigeons in the rafters of the school gym. The birds, responsible for bringing in lice, fly in through air spaces under the eaves. Their dropings, visible on light fixtures and rafters above the littered floor, serve as breeding grounds for lice.
Holes in hall ceilings, revealing pipes and insulation.
Broken latches on classroom windows, allowing any intruder in, and numerous fire violations, such as glass doors without mesh screens.
Staff psychologist Greenberg produced a list of some 130 repair work-orders, written since March 1, Roughly half - such as exposed electrical wiring in time-out rooms - had been completed, Greenberg says. Other orders, such as the backed-up toilets, had not.
Yesterday's bird-lice kill is not the first time pigeons have brought trouble to Cheltenham. Greenberg and center director Hank Gromada said that last winter, pigeons roosted above a hallway duct, leaving feathers and droppings to greet staff and students in the hall in the morning. An ensuing fumigation left two dozen dead birds littering the lawn around the school building.
"These buildings are horrible," says JoAnn Bell, a Prince George's County school board member who chairs Cheltenham's 10-member board of directors. "I was sitting at an evaluation meeting (in the school library) while a mouse ran across phone wire in the room. A water fountain broke down, and they took it out and said, "It doesn't leak anymore.'"
Director Gromada says part of the problem is that there is no licensing requirement for the school building, although there is one for the two residential cottages that house the 40 resident students. Gromada says the state mental health department has earmarked $100,000 to bring the two cottages up to state standards.
Watching the pigeons flutter and screech about the gym rafters yesterday, Gromada said school would reopen today. The gym will remain closed at least until the rafters are cleaned.
"The school system's problem is that if you take them (state officials) to court to fix the building," Bell said yesterday, "is what if they close it down? What do you do with the children?"