Guest Column

Confessions of a Nit-Picking Superintendent

by JAN G. BORELLI


Last July, shortly after I became superintendent of El Reno, Okla., Public Schools, I had a visit from the district nurse, Micki Fedderson. She informed me that the devastation to our district by infestations of head lice required we employ another part-time nurse just to check students’ heads.

The mere mention of this situation made my head itch, but I laced my fingers together in demonstration of the tight team that we would be in attacking this problem. That was in my first month as a superintendent, so several things distracted me from mounting an immediate campaign against the dreaded head lice.

Then one Saturday morning in September I noticed my sons, Bo and Joseph, who are 8 and 5 respectively, intensely scratching their heads. It was then that Bo informed me his teacher was sending him to the school nurse on Monday because of his itching head. Have you ever had one of those moments of sheer terror when everything takes on a surrealistic Twilight Zone quality?

I looked at my child in horror. The thought of sending him to live outside with the dogs was a very real option for a second or two. I headed out for a cure for the dreaded head lice at a store in a neighboring town where I might remain anonymous.

A Horrible Dream

The standard response to head lice is to get a bottle of lice shampoo or cream rinse. I mistakenly thought it was just that easy to rid oneself of head lice. The treatments, besides being expensive, are caustic, with strong warnings that horrible things will happen if you leave the treatment on the affected person for more than 10 minutes. The directions also say that everything in the house--all clothes, bedding and anything that even got near the infected person--should be washed.

After the shampooing treatment, I combed the children's hair for hours with a tiny nit comb until they were completely free of lice and nits. Panic stricken, I put each boy back in the shower, reasoning that if once was good, twice was better. I had no idea that doubling the treatment can be toxic to a child.

As my children peacefully slept, I spent hours washing and vacuuming and saving my home from the infestation.

As I worked feverishly I thought to myself about what Nurse Fedderson would say. Would parents insist that my children become outcasts? Would the kind people of El Reno say I was an unfit mother who kept a filthy house?

When my husband called that evening to check on us, it was difficult to tell him--our children were lice magnets. That night I had horrible dreams about people referring to me as the nit-picking superintendent.

Repeating the Ordeal

I wrestled with what was the right thing to do. That Monday morning I called the elementary school principal, Patty Hamner, and whispered my wicked news. She called Nurse Fedderson who immediately came to the school and checked the two boys' heads. That night I received a note informing me that both children were still infested. I remember thinking, "Would head shaving be appropriate?" So again I scrubbed their tiny heads and raked their hairs with head-lice combs.

With a missionary zeal I began my quest to become the most well-informed person on the subject of head lice. I discovered the National Pediculosis Association's Web site and joined (what kind of expert would I be if I weren't a card carrying member of the NPA?). Next I ordered their Lice Meister, a long-toothed metal comb. Soon, I began conversing via e-mail with other people interested in head lice, including Richard Pollack, a noted entomologist at Harvard.

Pollack indicated I might be going a bit overboard in my zeal to eradicate head lice, but he did share results of his study where he immersed head lice in olive oil. Pollack found that if he held the buggers under olive oil for two or more hours, they died.

I decided to test the approach on my boys and covered their scalps with big dollops of olive oil and then covered their hair with disposable shower caps. The boys sat with this interesting new look for 4 to 6 hours before I began combing their heads with metal nit combs (The plastic ones don't seem to work). The boys rather enjoyed the feel of having their very oily hair combed over and over. I could literally see the dead lice and nits streaming out of their hair as I combed. I felt I was really onto something.

A Joint Attack

With my home infestation under control, Nurse Fedderson and I convened a local task force of medical professionals, educators, interested parents and health department professionals. We studied the problem intensively, and I shared my experiences. We found an incredible film, "Head Lice to Dead Lice," which is full of humor as well as solid information. We purchased copies for each school library. I made numerous presentations to any group who would listen, and the principals and teachers did school–wide presentations to their PTAs and to every class of students.

We developed policies to help parents protect their children from head lice. Viv Dyer at the county juvenile department even got into the act by providing informational training for parents. We developed a community–wide response. Now, before we check children's heads we send letters home to the parents, so they can check first. We want to partner with parents in solving this problem.

The most important thing we did was to bring the issue of head lice out of the whispering stage and into the public arena of resolution. Although my mother winced when she read in the local newspaper about my family coming out of the lice closet, it helped parents realize that even the superintendent's kids could get head lice.

Jan Borelli is superintendent of the El Reno Public Schools, P.O. Box 580, El Reno, OK 73036. E-mail: jgborelli@aol.com