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Fire inspector finds no problems in review of Wiregrass Ranch High cafeteria

Lunch lines cleared within 6 minutes of the period beginning.
Pasco County Fire Marshal Karl Thompson and school district fire inspector Tom Rutledge visit the Wiregrass Ranch High cafeteria on Aug. 21, 2018, after receiving complaints of crowding. [Jeffrey S. Solochek | Times]
Pasco County Fire Marshal Karl Thompson and school district fire inspector Tom Rutledge visit the Wiregrass Ranch High cafeteria on Aug. 21, 2018, after receiving complaints of crowding. [Jeffrey S. Solochek | Times]
Published Aug. 21, 2018
Updated Aug. 21, 2018

Pasco County fire inspectors gave Wiregrass Ranch High School's cafeteria a clean bill of health Tuesday, after receiving complaints that its lunch periods filled the room beyond capacity.

A sign posted near the door said the cafeteria could hold 300 people.

Pasco County Fire Marshal Karl Thompson said just by looking at the room, he could tell the number was wrong. After measuring the space and applying formulas from the state fire safety code, Thompson and school district fire inspector Tom Rutledge determined the correct capacity to be 500.

"From a fire code standpoint, there is not an issue of overcrowding," Thompson said, as Rutledge signed new capacity signs that a custodian quickly posted at four doorways.

"We're just making sure people can get out of here safely," Rutledge added.

Their action did not directly address some parent and student concerns regarding lunchtime flow. Some said the lines were so long that some children did not get enough time to be served and eat before the bell. [District records show no difference in the number of meals served the first week of school this year and last year, with attendance nearly identical.]

The school reduced each lunch period to 30 minutes from 50 minutes last year. It also removed one lunch period, so there are three rather than four.

With 2,250 students attending, the math suggests that there could be too many people moving through the space each lunch.

But principal Robyn White said with the addition of extra outdoor seating, where as many as 200 teens remain rather than entering the cafeteria to eat, lunchtime has been manageable.

Wiregrass Ranch High has added outdoor seating to accommodate students during large lunch periods. [Jeffrey S. Solochek | Times]
Wiregrass Ranch High has added outdoor seating to accommodate students during large lunch periods. [Jeffrey S. Solochek | Times]
“What I have read [on social media] is not true to what has been happening,” White said.

She suggested that students and faculty needed time to become accustomed to the shorter period, and the early hiccups quickly faded as everyone began to understand they need to get in line at the beginning of lunch and then deal with other concerns after.

If anyone needs extra time, White added, the school has agreed to extend lunch. So far, it has needed to do so for just one period on the first day of classes.

On Tuesday, the first lunch — the largest — saw students begin flowing in moments after the bell dismissing them from their previous class.

"I've got to get in the line before it gets full," one boy told a friend as he walked in.

He was out of the line in less than 3 minutes.

Within 5 minutes of the official start of lunch, fewer than 20 students remained in the six serving lines. With 25 minutes remaining in the period, the lines were clear, except for the occasional straggler.

Some students continued to buy snacks from the indoor and outdoor windows at the ala carte station, as well.

An assistant principal counted 62 open seats inside. There were several spaces outside, too.

"I don't see any reason to change what we do currently," White said after monitoring the period, which she said reflected what she's seen daily.

Senior Kasean Ridgel said he didn't see much need for change, either. He acknowledged not having much time to do class work after lunch anymore, but said he and his friends are adjusting.

"People want longer lunch so they have more time to do stuff," Ridgel said. "But I guess I have time."

Wiregrass Ranch has not been the only Pasco school where students have complained about the shorter lunch schedule. Pasco and Zephyrhills high school students also have mentioned problems, and one has started a petition to return to 50-minute lunch periods.

Pasco High junior Karalee Harris said on Twitter that she intends to bring the issue to the School Board when it meets. That session begins at 6 p.m.

Related coverage: Students, parents complain about 30-minute lunches in Pasco schools