"That's disgusting!" said some grossed-out students who attend Newton High in Queens. They say they are all too familiar with who they sometimes share their school lunch with.
"One time I was eating and saw a rat run through the lunch room," one student told Fox 5 News.
Newtown High in Elmhurst has the dubious distinction over the past two years of being one of school cafeterias in New York City that has the highest number of violations for rodents, roaches and mice.
In one inspection alone, 120 mice droppings were found. In total, Newtown High School has had at least 12 critical violations over the past two years. That would be enough to receive three failing inspections if it were a restaurant instead of a school.
Newtown High might be bad, but it's not alone. A six-month Fox 5 investigation uncovered thousands of serious health violations at many New York school cafeterias.
Fox 5 News looked at two years of inspection reports at both public and private schools, from kindergarten through high school, and found some of the schools with the most critical violations. We also pinpointed some school cafeterias with ongoing health code issues. The New York City Department of Health conducted more than 5,687 school cafeteria inspections in the past two years. The department issued more than 2,300 critical and public health hazard violations. Those are the most serious offenses.
"Really, you could be talking about life or death. You have children that their immune system may not be that of an adult. They are susceptible to more," Mark Nealon says. Nealon was a New York City health inspector from 1990 to 1993. He now runs his own business consulting restaurants on how to safely pass inspection.
"If there is a pathogen in food because of improper handling or temperature controls, you can really get someone sick, if not kill them," he says.
Improper food handling, not maintaining proper food temperature, rats and other rodents, and contaminated food are some of the most dangerous violations. Those types of violations can force the closure of a restaurant.
"Schools, they are not going to shut down," Nealon says. Anything over 28 violation points is a failing grade for a restaurant and can mean the restaurant is forced to close. "If you're a New York City public school you get a sheet explaining what your violations were and that's about it. There is no fine. There is no court date. There is no letter grade associated with it."
"The city is not going to fine themselves, so they'll go into a restaurant which has a license by the city Health Department and apply and violation totally different than the same violation that's found in a public school," Nealon says.
And, it's just not public schools with problems. Yeshiva Yigdal Torah Elementary in Brooklyn appears to be one of the worst violators. It has had 19 critical violations in the past two years.
Inspectors flagged the school cafeteria for having everything from flies to mice to warm milk, and even having a sink without soap.
One worker, who did not want to be identified, told Fox 5 News that the school tries to fix the violations, and says the school even brings in its own exterminators every two weeks now. He says mice are part of life in New York City school cafeterias.
He might be right. We found that the Department of Health issued more than 600 violations to New York schools for flying insects, roaches, vermin, mice and rats in just two years.
P.S. 197 in Harlem was cited for having live roaches in the food storage area, and cafeteria workers were even forced by the Department of Health to throw away potentially hazardous food, like cold cuts, that were kept in the refrigerator for almost two months at improper temperatures.
Even well-to-do private schools received critical violations. Manhattan's Trevor Day School on the Upper East Side, where tuition costs more than $40,000 a year, received six critical violations in the last two years, including a recent violation for toxic chemicals improperly stored. We reached out to Trevor for comment, but it didn't responded. All of Trevor Day Schools violations have been corrected.
Some of New York's specialized schools have also received many critical violations. The High School of American Studies in the Bronx emphasizes the study of American history and boosts preparing students for a wide range of careers, including law. But, school cafeteria workers have repeatedly broken the law for not having a worker present holding a Food Protection Certificate.
The law requires all food establishments have a supervisor with a food protection certificate on duty during all hours of operation to ensure safe food handling.
But probably the most disgusting thing we found was at Mott Haven in the Bronx. In 2011 the school cafeteria was cited for "sewage contamination in the kitchen." Inspectors observed "brown water mixed with black tissue matter" and a "pungent odor." Inspectors forced workers to throw all the "contaminated food."
The sewage water problem was repaired at Mott Haven, but no matter the severity of the problem, incredibly, schools are not required to inform parents or students about cafeteria conditions.
Unlike restaurants, schools don't post letter grades.
Fox 5 News went to New York City Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott for answers.
"We have 1,754 schools and 1,284 buildings and, unfortunately, there may be cases where there are rats and rodents," Walcott says. "Our goal is to make sure we address that, and we do."
The New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene issued a statement saying: "New York City's public school cafeterias are typically cleaner and safer than restaurants, and when our inspectors do find problems, the Department of Education responds quickly and works closely with the Health Department to fix those problems."
Department of Education officials also told Fox 5 that all serious violations are addressed immediately and non-critical violations are prioritized with the repair work for the building. DOE officials also say that all the violations we reported have been corrected or will be corrected soon.
Walcott stressed that the Department of Education does its own monitoring of school cafeterias and that most New York City school cafeterias have received few or minor violations.
In the last six months since we started working on this story school officials told us almost all of the violations issued to city schools have been corrected.
DOE officials also told Fox 5 that they are in the process of hiring of a permanent supervisor with a food protection certificate at High School of American Studies.
Chancellor Walcott referred us to the Department of Health on why schools are not given letter grades.
But neither New York City school district officials nor Department of Health Officials would answer this question: Why are some schools allowed to get the same dangerous violations over and over?
Department of Health: "New York City's public school cafeterias are typically cleaner and safer than restaurants, and when our inspectors do find problems, the Department of Education responds quickly and works closely with the health department to fix those problems."
Department of Education: All serious violations are addressed immediately and non-critical violations are prioritized with the repair work for the building. All the violations FOX 5 reported have been corrected or will be soon.