Forty-one students were taken to five local hospitals for treatment Friday after a student dispersed pepper spray while in gym class at Highlands Middle School, according to Duval County Public Schools.
Keith Powers, chief of JFRD, said around 1:19 p.m., firefighters responded to Highlands Middle School located on the northside of Jacksonville at 10913 Pine Estates Rd. E. after receiving reports that students had been pepper-sprayed.
Powers said 19 students were taken to UF Health's main campus, six students were taken to Memorial Hospital, eight students were taken to UF Health's north campus, five students were taken to Baptist North Medical Center and three students were taken to Normandy Park Hospital.
All of the students were taken to the hospital with very minor injuries and were taken to the hospital out of an abundance of caution, according to Powers.
One parent said he was first notified about his daughter being taken to the hospital when he received a terrifying phone call from her.
“I know she was just scared and crying," the parent said. "She said I can’t breathe and that’s about all I knew on the phone call.”
A student dispersed the pepper spray, according to DCPS Superintendent Diana Greene. Persons of interest have also been identified and will be interviewed by school police Monday, she said.
At the time of the incident, about 80 students were in the gym, according to Michael Edwards, chief of school police.
Multiple students are believed to be involved in the incident and at least one can of pepper spray was recovered, Edwards said.
According to the DCPS Code of Conduct 3.08, having over two ounces of mace or pepper spray is considered a prohibited substance.
Punishment for the first occurrence is a parent conference and SOS for a prohibited object (if declined, five days ATOSS) or a parent conference and nighttime substance abuse program (for prohibited substances).
Punishment for the second occurrence is seven days of OSS and the principal may at his/her discretion, refer the student to the hearing office.
One grandmother says she received an email saying to come pick up her grandson. Her grandson told her that he saw "kids throwing up and some of their eyes running but yeah that’s kind of scary” in the gym.
Mother Stacy Ratcliff told First Coast News, "I didn't get a phone call from the school until I got to the hospital saying what happened and what the situation was."
Her son William, who was inside the gym at the time, said he had throat and chest pains after the exposure. "It felt like I was barely able to breath and I was barely able to talk."
The following message was sent to parents by DCPS regarding the incident:
I’m calling to inform you that we had a pepper spray event today at school that impacted a large group of students and required a significant response of police and rescue personnel.
It appears that pepper spray was dispersed in the gym during seventh grade PE class. Teachers and staff immediately evacuated from the gym, to the football field.
Law enforcement and rescue personnel were called in to help control the situation and bring care to those students affected by the spray. We are in the process of reaching out personally to all families of students who appear to be suffering from any of the effects of the spray. Many are being transported to hospitals. Again, we are working to contact parents of those students directly.
As you know, pepper spray is a prohibited item and we will investigate the cause of this incident and apply the student code of conduct as appropriate. For now, we are returning to school as normal while contacting families and providing care to affected students.
If your child has seventh-grade physical education during 5th period, please reach out to the school, and we will inform you if your student is safely in class or if he or she is getting medical attention. Again, if your child has seventh-grade physical education during __ period, please reach out to the school if we haven’t connected with you already.
I’m sorry that our students had to endure this disruption today, and as with any incident like this, I want to make sure that you are aware. Please don’t hesitate to reach out to me if you have any questions or input about anything having to do with your child’s experience here at Highlands Middle.