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Video: Teenagers build purple 'bat box' at Washington Elementary School

WINTON -- Once upon a time there were a bunch of stinky flying bats, a group of smart kids, millions of mosquitoes, asthma-related guano and a little wooden purple house.

All these moving parts came together just at the right time to help solve an environmental, ecological and health problem at a local school.

Washington Elementary School doesn't necessarily want to get rid of its infestation of about 1,000 bats.

It would just prefer the winged mammals stay away from the kids.

The solution? A violet-colored bat box built by teenagers as part of a Camp Fire Club and Roots & Shoots project.

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The youth environmental service group, which includes seven local high school girls, created the bats' new 2-by-2-foot home using plywood and cedar. Inside are nine separate chambers with hand-cut grooves so the creatures can hook their little feet there for a comfortable rest.

About 800 to 1,000 bats can inhabit the space, which was placed on a high pole on the far east side of campus where students don't typically go.

And the bat house is coated in a vivid violet color. "It's painted lightly so the bats won't overheat," explained Elaina Robinson, 16, a Camp Fire Club and Roots & Shoots member and Buhach Colony High School student.

The Mexican free-tailed and little brown bats haven't yet made their big move to new quarters. They still inhabit the half-inch space underneath the multipurpose rooms' gutter and flashing (the metal that hangs over the side of the roof).

Denzel McDowell, the school's maintenance operations director, placed plastic over the flashing so the bats can fly out but will face trouble getting back in. Once they're all out, he'll nail down the flashing completely -- hoping that the creatures will relocate to the bat box.

"We want them away from the building, but don't want to get rid of them altogether," he said.

If the bats were to leave completely, the school would have more problems with mosquitoes, said the school's principal Helio Brasil, superintendent of the Merced River School District.

Bats are the primary predators of night-flying insects and eat enormous quantities of them, according to Bat Conservation International, a nature education resource.

But more than half of the United States' 47 bat species are now endangered or in rapid decline.

Their most formidable threats are humans and loss of habitat. The school doesn't want to lose them or contribute to their endangerment, Brasil said.

Then, of course, there are health concerns for the students. "(Bats) are a filthy mess," he said. "But they are endangered. So how do we keep the campus clean -- and keep them away from the kids?"

No children have come in contact with or had any trouble with the bats, he added. And all those horror stories about bats going on rampages isn't true, said Lisa Kayser-Grant, leader of the Camp Fire Club and Root & Shoots.

"If they are not handled, it's fine," she said. "But children are curious, so we need to have them away from the multipurpose room."

Bat droppings were scattered along the side of the building Tuesday afternoon. A tiny dead bat lay on the ground.

Not only are the creatures messy, but their urine and droppings smell terrible, release ammonia and can even trigger asthma, said Melissa Kelly-Ortega, program associate for the Merced/Mariposa County Asthma Coalition.

The Asthma Coalition encouraged the bat-box program after discovering the school's problem during an "Indoor Air Quality -- Tools for Schools" walk-through. The walk-throughs are done at various local schools to measure carbon dioxide readings, air flow and temperature.

"When we noticed there were bats, I thought of Roots & Shoots," she recalled.

The combined team of youth service organization Camp Fire Club and environmentally focused Roots & Shoots was already looking for a chance to do a bat-box project, Kayser-Grant said. So they were presented with an ideal opportunity.

McDowell said the bats had been a problem for years, and the school had long tried to figure a humane way to deal with them. He had heard about bat boxes, but didn't know how to go about getting them.

Kayser-Grant collected all the information her group needed for the project through Bat Conservation International --

The project took about four months to complete, including about two to three weeks of actually building the boxes, Robinson said. And then they had to find a suitable location, added club member Haley Grant, 16, a home-schooled high school student from Merced.

The box is far from buildings and areas where children play, said Grace Kenny, 15, a club member from Golden Valley High School. And the spot where it sits hosts both shade and sun for the bats while keeping them shielded from shiny reflections, which they hate.

The Merced River School District will be recognized for its conservation and air quality efforts. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will present the district on May 6 -- World Asthma Day -- with a "Great Start Award" for its work with the Indoor Air Quality -- Tools for School Program.

These kids clearly were thinking outside the bat box.

Reporter Dhyana Levey can be reached at (209) 385-2472 or