JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Firefighters responding to a mass casualty event at Highlands Middle School on Friday afternoon took 41 seventh-grade students suffering effects from pepper spray to area hospitals, according to Duval County Public Schools.
The incident happened just after 1 p.m. in the gym when it is believed multiple students released pepper spray during a fifth-period physical education class. Teachers and staff immediately evacuated from the gym to the football field.
“Everybody started running out the gym and then, when I came, outside everyone was coughing, crying," student William Cosby told News4Jax. "Someone threw up. It looked like blood, so when I saw that I just called my mom.”
Sky 4 aerials over the school about 2:15 p.m. showed dozens of students in bleachers on the athletic field and the several rescue vehicles, fire engines and police vehicles at the school.
Jacksonville Fire-Rescue Chief Keith Powers said those affected were taken to the hospital out of an abundance of caution.
“All of them had very, very minor injuries,” Powers said.
The school initially notified parents through their robocall system: “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. We will inform you if your student is safely in class or if he or she is getting medical attention.”
Families of seventh-grade students at Highlands who had not heard from the school are encouraged to call the school at 904-696-8771.
Duval County School Police reviewed surveillance video and established multiple persons of interest, but some of those were among those treated for exposure and released to their parents.
“Based on the circumstances in this case, I think the best thing to do is meet with them on Monday,” police Director Micheal Edwards said, but later added that might change as their investigation continues over the weekend.
News4jax Crime and Safety Expert Ken Jefferson said, considering the chaotic incident happened at the end of the day on a Friday, he can see why the school is waiting.
“You don’t want to try to interview them while they’re suffering through this particular incident," Jefferson said. "Give them a chance to recover, recoup, return to school and then get the information from them then.”
Edwards said any container with more than 2 ounces of pepper spray for personal use is not allowed at school.
Parents were frustrated by a lack of information. One parent saw his daughter being taken by ambulance and no one could tell him where she was going because the school didn’t know.
“We have individuals at the hospitals making sure the students were never alone,” Duval County School Superintendent Diana Greene said, adding that calls to the parents of those involved were being made as quickly as possible.
Dr. Melissa Parsons, an emergency room physician at UF Health Jacksonville where 19 of the students were taken, said they saw the symptoms they would expect from pepper spray: watery and stinging eyes, nausea and vomiting, coughing and shortness of breath, particularly among those who have asthma.
Eight students were also taken to UF Health North, six to Memorial, five to Baptist North and three to Normandy Park ER.
“My goal is to ensure that we can provide an environment that students can feel safe to come to school. Teachers are can feel safe, too, to teach and other employees feel safe to be on their campus,” Dr. Greene said. “What I appreciate is that staff moved immediately. Our police department responded immediately. And our partnership with Jacksonville Fire and Rescue, they responded immediately.”