An apparent prank Friday at Basalt High School turned nauseating and caused real headaches for some students and faculty.
A student at the school sprayed pepper spray in a hallway by bathrooms across from the school's office, Basalt Police Sgt. Penny Paxton said. Police officers found the canister it was sprayed from after investigating the incident Friday afternoon.
Police talked to three persons of interest who were allegedly acting suspiciously at the time of the incident, Paxton said. That work produced a juvenile suspect. It will be up to the Pitkin County District Attorney's Office to determine if a charge or charges will be pursued.
Before the suspect was identified, Paxton said the responsible party incited fear among 400-plus students and faculty at the school.
Paxton said it appeared the incident was a prank rather than a broader, coordinated scheme.
The incident occurred around 11:51 a.m. People who walked by the area reacted with coughs and irritated eyes. School Resource Officer Brian Lemke realized that people were being affected by some type of gas and he himself was affected so he pulled a fire alarm to clear the school, Paxton said.
"They were describing it as suffocating," Paxton said.
Lemke and Basalt Police Officer Phil Martin put on masks and carried rifles as a precaution when they entered the school, according to Paxton. That is standard procedure for an incident such as this, she said. The team searched for any type of device used with the chemical and to make sure no one was inside, Paxton said. They determined the school was safe. A team of fire fighters in protective gear also entered the school.
A total of 49 students, faculty and administrators were exposed to the chemical, according to Matt Avidan, deputy chief of Emergency Medical Services at Basalt Fire Department. Of those, 41 displayed symptoms such as difficulty breathing, coughing, tearing eyes, and over time, some of them vomited because of muscle spasms from the reaction to the chemical.
Three students were transported to local hospitals, Avidan said. One student with asthma experienced breathing trouble from the chemical. The medical experts with the fire department advised the school to send the students who were exposed home so they could take a shower to ease the effects.
The incident occurred during a lunch period, so many students were off campus. That possibly limited the exposure.
Medical responders from Thomasville, Carbondale and Aspen assisted the Basalt Fire Department. Pitkin County deputy sheriffs responded to assist Basalt Police Department.
The emergency responders and school officials had an additional challenge of dealing with the elements. About one-half hour after the evacuation, the wind came up, the temperature dropped and eventually it rained. The exposed students and faculty were taken to the Basalt recreation program building on the school campus to get out of the cold.
Students who weren't exposed were led to the bleachers at the football field, which is adjacent to the school. They were put into school buses as the weather turned nasty. They were eventually let back into school for a final class of the day, Paxton said.
The area where the pepper spray was released was scrubbed down by the school cleaning staff and was cordoned off.
Lee Van Portfliet, an administrative assistant at the school, said she didn't see any fog or vapor hanging in the air. Instead there was a smell. She said her eyes teared up and she soon developed a headache.
A female student who was exposed to the chemical explained to a reporter from The Aspen Times that the gas caused throat pain almost immediately. That symptom was continuing more than 30 minutes after the incident, she said. A male student said the affects of the gas made it feel like there were needles in his throat.
A male teacher at the school asked the reporter to stop talking to the students before he was able to get their names.
Kitty Riley, teach and media specialist at the school, said the evacuation went orderly and smooth like it does in the drills. She has been at the school for 22 years and participated in the practice evacuations.
"This was the first time it was real," she said.