JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – A total of 41 students at Highlands Middle School were hospitalized Friday after they were exposed to pepper spray in the school’s gymnasium, according to a spokesperson for the Jacksonville Fire and Rescue Department.
As parents arrived to pick up their children, they spotted numerous police lights and ambulances. Some concerned mothers and fathers were still trying to piece together exactly what happened.
“Everybody started running out the gym and then when I came outside everyone was coughing, crying, someone threw up,” said Williams Cosby, a student. "When I saw that, I just called my mom.”
According to the school administration, parents of students should have received a robocall explaining the situation. Some said they never got that call. (See statement below from Duval County Public Schools)
“I’m extremely upset, you know, like why didn’t the school contact us and let us know like immediately? Why did my children have to contact me and let me know what’s going on," said Johnny Blalock.
Rachael, Blalock’s daughter, said she was in the gymnasium.
“I started coughing, like heavily. I couldn’t breathe,” the 12-year-old said. “I didn’t know what to do.”
According to Blalock, she received a phone call informing her that her daughter had been hospitalized after she’d arrived at the school.
“About an hour of being here at the school. The school didn’t tell me. The hospital called me and told me my daughter was there,” Blalock said. “There was about, like, 10 parents in the office.”
Stacy Ratcliff, Cosby’s mother, said if it wasn’t for her son calling, she wouldn’t have known about what happened until later.
“Just imagine getting a phone call stating this happened. Your son is asthmatic. You get to the school. Uou’re up there for almost an hour. There’s no update. You can’t see your child. I’m not with him while he’s in a medic transport. I’m not with him while he’s being checked out at school. He gets to the hospital, I’m not with him," Ratcliff said. “So just imagine all the things that’s going through your mind.”
Larry Williams said he rushed to UF Health where his son was treated.
“I want to press charges on that kid or whoever that is. I don’t care how old they are that’s just not right, man. That’s like an all-new kind of bullying nowadays and that’s getting too far,” Williams said.
Williams said he might have his child change schools.
Some parents told News4Jax they planned to issue a complaint to the school district. As of Friday evening, students were scheduled to return to class Monday.
Jacksonville Fire and Rescue Chief Keith Powers said students were transported to area hospitals out of an abundance of caution.
“All of them had very, very minor injuries," Powers said.
Duval County School Police reviewed surveillance video and established multiple persons of interest, but Director Michael Edwards said some of those people were treated for exposure and released from school.
“Based on the circumstances in this case, I think the best thing to do is meet with them on Monday,” 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.”
Duval County Public Schools a spokesperson issued the following statement to News4Jax:
"As you develop this story, I wanted to share that in situations like today, school’s staff primary responsibility is to assist students. While we work to provide notification to parents as quickly as possible, our number one priority is and will always be securing the safety of children.
"For timeline purposes, the incident occurred approximately at 1:30 p.m. and the notification to parents went out at 2:45 p.m. In that time, as school staff coordinated with emergency personnel and worked to ensure students were cared for, the principal’s team was working to make direct contact with families of affected students.
“For your reference, a percentage of parents did not receive the message that went out due to factors such as deactivated phone numbers or the phone call was blocked. We ask that parents please contact their child’s school to make sure it has the most updated contact information.”