Mom sues school district over bat-infested halls

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Never mind the latest Batman installment, "The Dark Knight." Lehi High School had the real thing last fall when a school of bats held roost near the ceiling of its small gym.

The bats have long since been removed, but a personal injury lawsuit alleging the Alpine School District neglected to protect students from the health risks of exposuure to bats has been filed in Utah County's 4th District Court.

Attorney Matthew R. Howell, who represents Traci Turner and her son Chase Jackson, said Jackson caught one of the bats last September, then showed it to friends for two hours. The school district had known of the bat infestation at the school for months, the suit alleges, but did nothing to remove them. The suit also alleges the school did not warn students against contact with the bats, or give instructions to them if they came across the animals. Turner claims the school also failed to warn students about bat poison it placed in the school building two days before classes resumed, and the bat carcasses that resulted.

Utah is home to 18 species of bats feeding mostly on insects. It's estimated that less than 1 percent of Utah bats carry rabies virus, said Leslie McFarlane, wildlife disease coordinator for the Utah Division of Wildlife. Still, few take chances if bitten, or if a cut or abrasion comes into contact with bat saliva. Once symptoms of rabies become manifest, it's too late to treat the fatal disease with a series of shots.

The suit makes no mention of whether Jackson was bitten but states that he, along with other plaintiffs, was injured "in health, strength and activity." Howell said Jackson and his mother learned of the risks of his exposure to the bat only when Jackson received a letter last September from the Utah County Health Department.

"When you're told your child may be exposed to a disease that's 100 percent fatal, that tends to grab your attention," Howell said.

Ronda Bromley, spokeswoman for Alpine School District, refutes the suit's claims, saying the school informed its students of the bats' presence over the school intercom the same day it learned the animals had roosted in the gym. Students were also warned not to touch the animals. She said the district denied no one treatment, paying $6,800 for shots for students wanting them.

"Even those who didn't have physical contact with the bats, but felt they were exposed had the option of treatment," Bromley said.

Jackson approached the school for treatment, Howell said, but was refused. Turner instead paid what Howell estimated was $2,000 for rabies shots for her son.The suit asks for compensation for those medical expenses, general and special damages, and attorney's fees.

Bromley also disputed the suit's claim about rat poison. The bats were not killed to leave carcasses, she said, but were driven out by pest-removal professionals at night using special lighting. Areas of the gym ceiling were then sealed to prevent bats from re-entering. "No poison was used," she said.