Agriculture

SBHS superintendent, ag boosters respond to speculation about student sickness

Health officials say stool sample tested did not contain pathogenic bacteria; no food items were tested

In the wake of dozens of San Benito High School students becoming ill and the forced cancelation of the annual Grad Trip to Disneyland, officials are saying that a virus — not a bacteria — may have been to blame, while the group that served food that some blamed for the stomach distress called speculation about the cause "a gossip game."

In a May 25 letter sent to SBHS District Superintendent John Perales by San Benito County communicable disease nurse Kelly Sonnenschein, it was reported that laboratory results on a stool sample submitted by one of the students involved in last week's "health incident … did not contain pathogenic bacteria." She noted that the county's Department of Environmental Health "was not able to test any of the items served" to seniors on "Finale Rally" day, an annual celebration at the end of the school year.

Perales released a statement saying the results of the testing done by the health department "leads us to believe that the illness many of our students suffered from was a virus. This further leads us to believe that the food served by our FFA Team at the senior finale rally was not the cause of the illness. He then addressed community accusations against the FFA, which for years has provided barbecued meals for students:

"As I am active on social media, I have unfortunately read many accusatory and distasteful comments aimed at our FFA Program," Perales wrote. "This reminds me of the saying, 'No good deed goes unpunished.' I can share with you that during our investigation the FFA Advisory Group / Parents have been very cooperative and have themselves sought out the Health Department to see how they can improve their practice. I was present at one of these inspections and the Health Inspector passed their work and practices with high marks. 

We are all saddened by the cancelation of the Disneyland Grad Trip and as I have shared, the trip is in many ways a rite of passage that our students missed out on – for this I apologize. We will work to begin refunding the cost of the trip as soon as possible – we are looking at starting this coming Tuesday, May 31st.  

As we move forward, I ask that we are careful to jump to conclusions and ask that we support each other – we are all on the same team and in times of crisis we need to support each other and come together. "

The Ag Boosters also released a statement calling the accusations that the food served by the FFA was to blame for the vomiting and diarrhea that students suffered "a gossip game."

"Dear Parents and Members of the Community,

We were contacted early Friday morning in regards to the possible food poisoning stemming from the Tri-Tip sandwiches we provided. The AG Boosters board members immediately became proactive in handling this situation and investigating thoroughly with the appropriate officials. At the advice of the Health Department and school officials, we waited until there was sufficient evidence to make a statement. We investigated our practices related to our food handling and distribution. The report findings from the Health Department cleared us of any wrongdoing and the unfortunate illness was the result of a terrible virus. This situation has turned into the gossip game with many different stories/theories going around the community that are false. 

To the all the seniors and their families involved: we, as parents and friends, feel horribly you became sick. Being in such a close knit community, we know so many of you and your sickness and missing the Grad Night Disneyland opportunity made us all feel horribly. 

The AG Boosters have been providing food for the school and various organizations for 20+ years. We have always been diligent and careful with the handling, preparing, storage, and serving of our food. As people have said, things happen – but we want to assure you that we didn’t skip any steps with the process we are provided by the Health Department. 

Please know this is an isolated incident and to our knowledge we haven’t had any health concerns related to any of our functions previously. The number of students affected has been an ever changing number. Our understanding is approximately 10% of the students that ate the sandwiches became ill after. We’ve spoken to several people including SBHS students and residents of our community whom have had similar symptoms that didn’t consume the sandwiches. 

We want to thank our volunteers who continue to make AG Boosters a great organization to support the kids of Hollister. Thank you to the Health Department for their professionalism and thorough investigation. Thank you to the school administration for your guidance during this difficult incident. And a special thank you to our loyal supporters for your continued support for so many years. We appreciate you all and look forward to serving you for years to come. 

Sincerely,
The Parents, Board Members, and entire AG Booster family"

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Adam Breen

Adam Breen has been a San Benito County resident since 1980 and graduated from Sacred Heart School and San Benito High School before earning a bachelor's degree from California State University, Fresno. A father of two sons, Adam has taught newspaper, English and yearbook at SBHS for the past decade, after six years as a magazine editor for Santa Clara University. He previously was editor of the Hollister Free Lance and content director for BenitoLink.