Sixteen students were hurt when two people allegedly sprayed a chemical irritant Thursday afternoon at Morgan Park High School — marking the fifth time students at the school were injured in an aerosol-related incident in just over a week.
Since April 25, the incidents have left five teachers and at least 31 students injured, according to Chicago police and fire officials.
Students on the school’s campus Thursday afternoon said the incidents weren’t attacks but examples of kids being kids. None of the students believed that any person or group in particular was being singled out.
“They’re just spraying it to spray it,” according to Shawn Harris, a freshman. “I don’t think it’s directed at anyone. [It’s] probably just to get out of class.”
About 12:15 p.m., emergency crews responded to reports that an aerosol bottle had been discharged at the school at 1744 W. Pryor Ave., according to police spokeswoman Kelli Bartoli, who could not confirm if the airborne substance was pepper spray.
Of the 16 students who were injured, three were taken to MetroSouth Medical Center in Blue Island for treatment, Bartoli said. The others refused medical help at the scene.
In earlier incidents, students said, the building was evacuated after a spray. But, when students began using the evacuations as an opportunity to leave campus and skip class, the school instead began initiating in-class lockdowns.
Still, all of the students were frustrated by the regularity of the incidents.
“It sucks,” said freshman Quyana Reed. “There are consequences to their actions that are affecting all of us.”
Reed, who is a member of the school’s majorette dance team, said she was angry that after-school activities were canceled because of the spray incidents.
“I like dancing, so it’s really bad that I can’t go to practice just because of what [others] are doing. At first it was … kind of funny, but now everyone is getting upset,” she said.
Other students agreed, calling the behavior “childish.” None of the students who spoke with a reporter had been present during any of the sprays but said they could smell and feel the irritant in the air walking through the school at times.
“It’s like a chemical. It gets in your throat and it’ll make you cough. It gets in your nose too,” junior Justin Cross said.
Chris Geovanis, communications director for the Chicago Teachers Union, claimed the spraying incidents have raised some serious concerns about health and staffing.
Geovanis told the Chicago Sun-Times that a student-teacher suffered an asthma attack Wednesday after being exposed to the pepper spray that emanated throughout the school’s hallways. When the student-teacher sought treatment at the school, she was told there was no nurse working that day — something Geovanis said exemplifies the school’s budgeting issues.
“That troubling reality upset both staff and the children they serve,” Geovanis said. “This school has over 1,200 students, and they and their educators deserve — just as every public school deserves — not just a full-time certified school nurse but the full complement of workers needed to nurture a safe and vibrant school community.”
“Instead of budgeting for these essential positions, Morgan Park’s administration just announced that it was cutting the teaching staff alone by seven positions, when they already don’t have enough counselors, social workers, educators or support staff,” said Geovanis, who claimed the school simply doesn’t have the staff “to ensure that kids’ energy is steered in more positive directions.”
Five kids are now facing criminal charges in connection with the series of spray stunts, police spokeswoman Christine Calace said.
A 17-year-old boy was taken into custody April 25 after letting off pepper spray at the school, and two 15-year-old boys were arrested the following day for doing the same thing, Calace said. On Thursday, officers arrested a 16-year-old girl and a 17-year-old boy.
All five are facing misdemeanor counts of reckless conduct, Calace said.
In an emailed statement Thursday, CPS spokeswoman Emily Bolton said suspects were “identified at the time of each incident” and stressed that no one was seriously hurt.
“CPS is committed to ensuring students have access to a safe learning environment, and district staff have been on-the-ground supporting the school community since last Thursday,” Bolton said. “The district is taking this situation very seriously and we will continue to engage the school community and implement additional security measures until the issue is rectified.”
Those measures include bolstering Morgan Park’s security and support staff and implementing “enhanced screening procedures” at the school’s entrance, Bolton said. Additionally, the school has held meetings with both students and staff to address the incidents.
Dr. Femi Skanes, principal of Morgan Park, didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment.
On Thursday afternoon, as the school and district were dealing with the fallout of the latest episode, some students said they just want the spraying to stop.
“It’s just happening too much,” Cross said. “We all have better things we could be doing. I’m tired of it.”