Bats fly the coop from Dutchtown High

Advocate Staff Photo by David J. Mitchell Ascension Parish school officials pulled down gutters like these from part of the gym complex at Dutchtown High School. Mexican free-tailed bats were squeezing behind these and other gutters at the gym and roosting along the top the building. School officials put up metal flashing in place of the gutters and waited to see if any bats were trapped in the building. A few were found inside and they were allowed to escape. The building was expected to reopen Monday. Show caption
Advocate Staff Photo by David J. Mitchell Ascension Parish school officials pulled down gutters like these from part of the gym complex at Dutchtown High School. Mexican free-tailed bats were squeezing behind these and other gutters at the gym and roosting along the top the building. School officials put up metal flashing in place of the gutters and waited to see if any bats were trapped in the building. A few were found inside and they were allowed to escape. The building was expected to reopen Monday.

State clears gym at Dutchtown

Like uninvited house­guests, the bats at Dutchtown High finally got the hint from their hosts after a prolonged stay at the school in northwestern Ascension Parish and left.

The Mexican free-tailed bats are gone and, hopefully, school officials said, won’t be back after changes to the high school gym complex’s gutters.

Officials with the state Department of Health and Hospitals inspected the buildings Friday and gave the all clear, school officials said.

“(The) gym has passed inspection and will reopen Monday,” said Johnnie Balfantz, a school system spokesman, on Friday.

After a March 27 DHH inspection, the school system voluntarily closed its gym complex — two buildings, linked by an enclosed hallway, that house two gym spaces along with band and choir rooms.

DHH and school officials raised concerns about the small chance a student or teacher could encounter a rabid bat and be bitten. Bat droppings, known as guano, also can pose a health risk to those with low immune systems, DHH officials said.

School officials said they have been dealing with the bats since mid-February. The closure of the gym complex was the culmination of several weeks of unsuccessful attempts to get the bats to find another home.

Chad Lynch, Ascension schools director of planning and construction, and Jeff Parent, school supervisor of maintenance, showed how the bats were slipping into a quarter-inch-wide gap between the outside gym walls and the bottom of the gutters.

“Clicker boxes,” which make sounds to scare the bats away, were set up in early March but proved ineffective, so school employees cut down the gutters at the end of March, Parent said. School workers also cleaned guano droppings below where the bats were roosting.

They then put up metal flashing to cover the area where the gutters had been. In a video taken by the school, the bats could be seen flying toward their old home at night and then flying away when they realized it wasn’t there anymore.

Lynch said school officials waited much of last week to see if the flashing trapped any bats inside the gym buildings.

A few did emerge early last week and they were freed, he said. School officials decided to let a few days of no bat sightings pass before inviting DHH to inspect the gym complex Friday.

“Our health inspector found that the school did an exceptional job in correcting the problem and cleaning the facilities that were impacted by the bats,” said Ken Pastorick, DHH spokesman.

The bats, also known as Brazilian free-tailed bats, are found throughout the United States. They are colonial creatures who feed at night on mosquitoes.

The well-lighted high school is not far from Bluff Swamp and Spanish Lake.

This is at least the second year the bats have showed up at about the same time of year at Dutchtown, school officials said. Many varieties of Mexican free-tailed bats are migratory, according to the University of Michigan’s Museum of Zoology.

Lynch and Parent said they did not understand at first where the bats were roosting.

Metal brackets that wrapped around the gutter to support and attach them to the gym wall helped create the narrow gaps where the bats were hiding.

Lynch said the bats would land just below the gutters and crawl into the gap between the gutters and the gym wall.

The new gym gutters won’t have those openings, Lynch said.

“That’s typical construction when you’re not thinking about a bat,” Lynch said.

Though the bats appear to be gone, evidence of the gutter openings remain.

Parent said the walls have been cleaned and bleached, but the bats’ oily bodies stained the tops of the gym walls with a faint blackish color.