Big roaches and moldy juice? Students put Sunset High cleanliness in spotlight

Sunset Senior High School Principal Lucia Cox gives a tour of her school on Tuesday, Jan. 20, 2015.
Sunset Senior High School Principal Lucia Cox gives a tour of her school on Tuesday, Jan. 20, 2015. MIAMI HERALD STAFF

Daniela Gil says she sees cockroaches “every day” at her school — Miami Sunset Senior High in Kendall.

Cleanliness at the school has been thrust into the spotlight after anonymous photos went viral on the Web, claiming to show moldy juice from the cafeteria, a fat cockroach in a bathroom and yellow and cloudy water from the water fountains.

“I always see cockroaches everywhere,” said Daniela, a 17-year old junior. “I just feel like we should be in an environment we can learn in and not be dirty.”

Sunset has since been scrubbed down, and the district has questioned the authenticity of the photos.

But that hasn’t stopped almost 1,000 people from signing an online petition on calling for Principal Lucia Cox’s removal. Current and former students say the school really is dirty.

Cox said she won’t “let the shock value distract from what goes on here every day.”

The school failed a Florida Department of Health facilities inspection on Jan. 13, records show. While investigating a complaint, inspectors found mold in a ceiling tile and in a storage room — but no pests.

Investigators looked into a complaint alleging that there were roaches in the cafeteria, that milk was spoiled and apples were rotten, but didn’t find any proof. Sunset passed an inspection of its food service, though inspectors noted the ice machine needed to be cleaned and cooking hoods needed to be dusted.

The district admits that, earlier this month, students complained about juice that “tasted funny,” said Region Superintendent Barbara Mendizabal.

But she stressed that no one from the administration saw the juice carton with floating green mold that made the Internet rounds.

“The juice that you see in this picture, it was never produced to us,” she said. “We cannot say it was real. It cannot be authenticated at this time.”

Records obtained by the Miami Herald show that school staff members have complained to the principal about cleanliness at the school — to no avail — since at least October. Among the concerns: Garbage cans that are never emptied, attracting roaches. Floors that have never been mopped. Restrooms that have gone weeks without hand soap.

“Teachers have been concerned about the cleaning of the school for a number of years,” said teacher Bruce Kozlowski, the union steward at Miami Sunset.

Cox said she forwards teacher’s concerns to the appropriate school staff, but that sometimes the complaints were too vague to act on. The emails reviewed by the Herald contained room numbers, along with specific requests for custodial services.

Sunset is in the design phase of a $6 million renovation that will include new ceiling tiles, paint, bathroom repairs and a new athletic track.

Nancy Medina, 19, said she attended the school until she dropped out last year because of health issues. Looking back, she and her mom now think her condition could have been exacerbated by the school’s condition.

“She was always with allergies all the time during the school year. During the summer, she was OK,” said Medina’s mother, Azucena Medina.

The younger Medina described mold on the ceilings and roaches in class. She missed school because she was constantly sick, and finally dropped out.

“I had failed classes that I was making up, but while I was going through that, I was hospitalized. And when I went back to see if I could finish my classes, they didn’t care that I was hospitalized … they didn’t let me finish,” Nancy Medina said.

Other students echoed similar frustrations with the administration. Valeria Otero, 20, said she transferred out of Sunset because of the environment at the school. That’s why she signed the petition against Cox.

“When you needed her, she wasn’t there,” Otero said.

Cox had little to say about the petition, saying she’s staying focused on an upcoming bond project that will spruce up the school.

“Sometimes you’re going to get comments that may or may not agree with your vision,” she said.

Mendizabal, the regional superintendent, said she needs to address the complaints with the principal and those who have raised concerns about her before making any decision about how to handle the petition requests.

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