sealPurdue News ____

September 1998

Purdue program gets rid of teachers' pests

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. -- John Carter, director of planning for the Monroe County Community School Corp. in Bloomington, Ind., got a call a few years ago from a worried father who was trying to track down the cause of his son's recurring illness -- an allergic reaction to something at home or at school that was putting the child in bed for a couple of days each month.

Carter didn't take long to match the boy's sick days with the recorded dates of school pesticide applications. "We sprayed on Wednesday and the kid was home on Thursday for three days. I looked back in the records a few months and, bingo, there it was," he says. Fortunately, it was near the end of the school year, and summer vacation provided a reprieve.

But the incident stuck with Carter well beyond that. As the man in charge of custodial services, pest control, and health and safety, he became interested in Integrated Pest Management (IPM), a program that uses a variety of tools and approaches to control pests. While IPM includes pesticides in that arsenal, they are the weapons of last resort. Carter's interest in the pest control program led him to Purdue University.

Carter joins a growing number of school administrators nationwide who have either been mandated by their state legislatures to create a public school IPM program or, like Carter, embrace it on their own. The award-winning program at his school, however, may become a model for the nation.

Tested in the corn and cotton fields of America's rural landscape, IPM was developed by university specialists in insects, plant diseases and weeds who found ways to reduce farming's dependence on chemical pest controls. They looked for preventive means to avoid problems rather than relying on regular pesticide applications.

Scouting, the practice of inspecting fields and evaluating an insect's ability to inflict harm based on its estimated numbers, became a major tenet of IPM, says Tim Gibb, an entomologist in the Purdue Cooperative Extension Service. "If it costs more to spray than you would lose to the insect, you don't spray," he says. "If pest populations are high enough to cause economic losses, you do what you have to do."

IPM for schools works the same, but instead of economic harm, the motivating factor is the health and safety of the children, Gibb says.

Schools, though, could be a tougher field than corn ever was. Imagine the mess several hundred first-, second- and third-graders can make, each with a snack clenched in a grubby hand. Then add a half-ton of pet food for the snakes, hamsters, fish and "domesticated" insects one finds in modern classrooms. Not to mention breakfast and lunch service, after-school daycare snacks and evening meetings. Schools get an A+ for prime insect habitat, say the experts.

Then there are the parents, who would have the most to say about "experimental" pest programs. In an effort to better understand parental expectations for pest and pesticide policies, Gibb and Purdue Pesticide Program Coordinator Fred Whitford surveyed parents from one of Indiana's north-central elementary schools. The resulting mandate from those who responded was clear -- no pests and no pesticides. That said, the parents tempered it with realistic expectations. First, they wanted schools to be pest-free. Second, they would condone the use of pesticides only after other means had failed.

While the parents may not have known the technical terms, the concepts they described were pure IPM, says Whitford. "Part of the challenge will be educating parents, staff and students on what 'pest-free' really means," he says. "A better term may be 'threat-free.'"

For instance, a school IPM program may allow spring-foraging ants to spend a few days inside, knowing full well the tiny invaders will move out as soon as other food becomes available. No similar courtesies would be afforded wasps and bees, which pose an immediate danger, or cockroaches, which would take up a more permanent residence in the school.

It also means being accountable to parental perceptions of pesticides. Whitford recalls an incident where kids were walking into school while someone was spraying the sidewalk.

"Parents see the school through their children's eyes," Whitford says. "No matter what the chemical was or how safe, it left the impression that the school didn't care. Does it make sense to be spraying when kids are around? No. The parents believe that and so do I.

"It doesn't matter what level of risk there is -- even if there's minimal exposure or the chemical involved is harmless, because there's a better way," he says. He is particularly critical of application practices that target areas, not insects: "All the baseboards in this country are dead. We don't have to spray any more baseboards."

In 1994, the Monroe County Community School Corp. teamed up with experts from Purdue and Indiana University's School of Public and Environmental Affairs to test IPM in three elementary schools under a federal grant, Gibb says.

Enthralled by its success, the school district within a year had applied the IPM program to all 18 of its school buildings. So began the daunting task of convincing 10,500 students, 600 teachers and 900 service staff to come along for the ride.

School IPM is no picnic, even without the ants. Gibb says it means a lot more work for janitors and food servers. Trash has to be taken out more often and classrooms de-cluttered. Insect entrances have to be sealed up and any safe harbors eliminated. Traps are used as early warning devices, and strategically placed baits are used rather than resorting to widespread pesticide applications.

Everyone has to be on the lookout for insect signs, and previous roach rest stops must be reinspected frequently. Carter says it took the help of everyone in the school. In exchange for the additional scouting duties, custodians were permitted to take teachers to task for sloppy habits that might encourage infestations.

The emphasis, and reliance, on broad cooperation means any unfunded IPM mandates may be doomed from the start, says Gibb, who adds the perspective of a former school board member to his insect expertise. "IPM requires the help of everyone. It's got to be top down and bottom up if it's going to work in a public school," he says.

Although Indiana doesn't yet require schools to use IPM, Michigan, Illinois, Texas, New York and several other states have mandated IPM or prompted schools to learn more. But very few programs can actually show administrators how it works. Gibb says the Monroe County program has become a model for schools to follow, and already has shared information on school IPM efforts with a dozen school systems in Indiana.

All told, Monroe County Schools reduced pesticide applications by 85 percent and cut pest management expenses by a third with IPM. However, those savings are offset by other expenses. "It's probably a wash," says Carter, when you consider the cost of additional training, building maintenance and last year's hiring of a district IPM coordinator.

Last year the program attracted official attention, receiving a Governor's Award for pollution prevention. It was the first time the award recognized a program instead of a company.

And, kudos for the program continue. Monroe County School Superintendent John Coomer says there have been no complaints about the IPM program from Bloomington parents, "whose environmental awareness is as high as you'd find anyplace." There even have been some thank-yous from those with chemically sensitive children.

But the best reward is what Carter calls health savings.

"They won't be going to the doctor because we're spraying," he says.

Sources: Tim Gibb, (765) 494-4570; e-mail,

Fred Whitford, (765) 494-1284; e-mail,

John Carter, (812) 330-7720

John Coomer, (812) 330-7700

Writer: Chris Sigurdson, (765) 494-8415; e-mail,

Purdue News Service: (765) 494-2096; e-mail,

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