Miami Sunset principal retires in wake of moldy juice, bug reports

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

The principal of Miami Sunset Senior High abruptly retired on Wednesday after anonymous, unconfirmed photos went viral online, claiming to show moldy juice from the cafeteria and cockroaches in the school.

An online petition calling for her removal had garnered more than 1,000 signatures before the school district announced Lucia Cox’s early retirement.

“Recognizing the best interests of Miami Sunset Senior High School, its students, faculty, and community and standing firmly on the high standards expected at Miami-Dade County Public Schools, today we accepted the early retirement of Dr. Lucia Cox,” Superintendent Alberto Carvalho said in an emailed statement.

District spokeswoman Daisy Gonzalez-Diego said Cox would not comment about her departure from the school district. The district provided no further details.

Cox’s retirement came on the heels of a tense meeting earlier in the day of Sunset’s Educational Excellence School Advisory Council, a group that makes school-level decisions. The council includes parents, as well as current and former teachers.

They said cleanliness has been a persistent issue — and that not much has changed, even with all the attention on the school now.

Teacher Milagros Perez said she walked into her classroom Wednesday and found that the garbage had not been emptied — again.

“I almost cried,” Perez said.

With help from the district, the school is evaluating how it trains janitors and what kind of cleaning equipment is used. The school has also implemented a new approach that will require custodians to regularly tackle cleaning projects like graffiti removal, spot painting and dusting common areas like lockers.

On Wednesday, the school passed a re-inspection by the Florida Department of Health. Sunset had failed an inspection on Jan. 13 after investigators found mold in the ceiling and in a storage room. They also found bathrooms without soap and ordered the floors to be scrubbed.

“We are continuing to strive for higher standards with the cleanliness,” Cox said at the meeting, before the district announced her retirement.

Minutes for the advisory council show that the upkeep of the building has been a concern for some time.

Aileen Joslin sits on the council and her son attends the school.

“Nothing is being done,” she told Cox.

In November 2013, the council discussed concerns about the physical condition of the building, according to minutes. A report from the council’s March 2014 meeting called cleanliness a “MAJOR concern — because this affects school climate and culture.”

“There have been bugs (mini flies) that have started to fester in garbage that has not been emptied. The bathrooms at times are short sanitary paper and the floors are filthy,” according to meeting minutes from November 2014.

One parent suggested that students took to social media to expose conditions at the school because they were fearful of the administration and didn’t believe anything would get done.

Shortly after the photos hit the Internet, Cox got on the school’s public announcement system to remind them about the district’s policy against using profanity online.

“Do not put yourself in a position where you have to explain yourself as to why you violated social media policy, school board procedures, code of student conduct and any ripple effects and unintended consequences that could be very negative, to what started as something that has already been taken care of,” she told students.

Carvalho has taken to social media himself to counter allegations that students were punished for speaking about conditions at Sunset.

“NOT on my watch,” he tweeted.

Carvalho also wrote: “Voicing what we see in schools is not only an opportunity, but a protected right.”

Former students who responded to a request through the Public Insight Network, an online community of people who have agreed to share their opinions with the Miami Herald, said that kids deserve the blame for some of the cleanliness issues — especially when it comes to the bathrooms.

Erick Alvarez, who graduated from Sunset in 2010, sang Cox’s praises. A member of the marching and concert bands, Alvarez said he once asked Cox for a percussion instrument called a marimba that can cost thousands.

“I went into her office. I gave her a letter and I told her about my concerns hoping we could get one,” said Alvarez, 22. “We ended up with a marimba. So she was very supportive of me.”

Joanne Roberts taught at the school for 25 years before retiring a few years ago, and she sits on the advisory council. She commended Cox’s ability to allocate the school’s resources where it’s most needed.

Roberts said she hopes the next principal will engage students in improving their school.

“The kids need a voice — especially after this. Kids were being ignored,” Roberts said. “Everybody needs to be included, and that school will turn around.”

People involved at Sunset called for a new leader who is visible, works with everyone in the school and can provide fair, consistent discipline.

“There has to be someone who comes in and sets a new climate,” said Irene Lirakis, a former teacher at Sunset who serves on the school’s advisory council.

Cox was the principal at Sunset for about 10 years, she said. She has worked for the district for more than 30 years, according to Gonzalez-Diego.

A permanent replacement for her will be named at the next school board meeting, which is scheduled for Feb. 11.

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