HOUSTON -- Most schools in Houston and Harris County receive good health inspection grades for cafeteria food safety. However, an I-Team computer-assisted analysis reveals repeat violators were cited for infractions that could make your child sick.
The I-Team analyzed more than 7,500 inspections over three years at nearly 1,200 schools. Only five percent received violations considered to be a serious health risk. But of those, several schools were written up for the same infractions multiple times.
At the Montessori School of Downtown, located in the 15600 Block of Space Center Blvd. in Clear Lake, there’s reading, writing, and, at times, roaches. City of Houston health inspectors cited it twice for roaches, and once for rodent droppings over the past three years.
“That’s horrible, I didn’t know that,” said parent Lawrence Mantegula.
Eric Rice, another parent, agreed.
"It's disturbing, I'll definitely look more into it," he said.
So what did the school have to say?
The I-Team caught up to the Montessori’s executive director Valerie Binkley outside the Clear Lake campus.
Binkley: “We take care of it just as anybody else with any kind of pattern of anything.”
I-Team: “Well apparently you haven't taken care of it because it keeps popping up.
Binkley: “Yeah, no, we take care of it."
The school later sent a letter from its pest control company stating it regularly services the school on a quarterly basis.
“Montessori School of Downtown has all services necessary to maintain a healthy and safe environment, including, but not limited to, pest control. Our school has a certified food manager on site at all times and is serviced for pest control quarterly,” Chief Executive Officer D.S. Ahlawat said in a statement.
Similar problems have been pestering the Clear Lake High School ninth-grade campus. Health inspectors cited the school for rodent droppings three times over the past three years.
“Damn, that's nasty," said student Sammy Dalgamouni.
Clear Creek ISD sent the I-Team district documents showing corrective action for the violations.
“The Clear Creek Independent School District is committed to providing a safe and effective environment for all students. We have, and will continue to, aggressively address the concerns raised in the City of Houston Health Department inspections,” said Director of Communications Elaina Polsen in a statement.
The I-Team found problems at other schools in the thousands of inspection reports done over the past three years. From dirt build-up and mildew, to moldy hot dogs and other contaminated foods that inspectors labeled “not fit for human consumption.”
But health experts point out the violations most likely to get your child sick, and are not always the ones that can make your skin crawl, like roaches and rats.
“It's an overall indication of sloppy public health, but they themselves rarely cause problems," said Dr. Herbert DuPont, director of the Center for Infectious Diseases at the University of Texas School of Public Health.
"There are other things in a kitchen that are more important than that," DuPont said.
For starters, consider hot water for washing dishes and general all-around cleaning. It sounds so basic, but the I-Team found several schools without it, including North Forest High School, in the 10700 block of Mesa Dr., last September.
“We have increased the vigilance of all our food service facilities to ensure that all food preparation and service is done with the maximum amount of care and caution,” said Dr. Johnny O’Connor, Assistant Superintendent for Administrative Services for North Forest ISD.
As for other high-risk violations, health experts say a major worry is temperature.
"Heat kills germs," DuPont said.
He said cooking meats through and through at proper temperatures is critical.
“And then not letting it sit out at room temperature for long periods of time so that microbes can replicate to infectious levels," DuPont said.
But the I-Team identified hundreds of violations for improperly cooked foods at Harris County schools over the past three years. At B.C. Elmore Middle School, in the 8200 block of Tate in Northeast Houston, inspectors found improper temperatures three times in three years.
Nearby Furr High School in the 500 block of Mercury, racked up a half dozen temperature violations over three years. R.P Harris Elementary, in the 1200 block of Mae in East Houston, had five temperature violations.
“That's bad, that's real bad," said Norreen Johnson, who has a daughter in kindergarten there. “You know they need to do better than what they're doing, so it won't make the kids sick."
And the sickness can vary depending on the pathogen, according to health experts. Vomiting is most common from viral infections, but when it’s bacteria, like from undercooked chicken or beef, it can be far worse.
"And often people who are affected pass bloody diarrhea, bloody stools, and that's a much more serious form of food borne disease," said DuPont.