- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 6, 2001

Four teachers and several students fell ill yesterday morning at George Mason Middle School and High School — a joint middle school and high school in Falls Church — owing to noxious vapors. A hazardous-materials team was summoned.
The Fairfax Hazardous Materials team arrived at the school in the 7100 block of Leesburg Pike at 8:40 a.m. and later discovered a cannister of pepper spray that was secured in a staff members desk drawer.
A member of the team located the canister just before leaving a room where it was suspected that the vapor had originated, said Lt. Mark Stone, a spokesman for the Fairfax County Fire Department. But Fairfax fire officials are unsure how the contents of the cannister were released.
"It was a key-ring-style cannister for personal use, not a bomb or a handmade device," Lt. Stone said.
He discounted the possibility of legal action against the staff member, saying, "From what I know of school policy, it is acceptable for a staff member to have pepper spray on school property as long as it is secured, and it appears to have been."
Students in the home-economics room located in the schools "H-wing," a connected but sectioned-off portion on the east side of the school, began to notice a strange smell in their classroom at the beginning of classes yesterday, said Falls Church spokeswoman Dionne Williams.
Twelve students and four members of the schools staff were overcome by the noxious vapors and taken to Inova Fairfax Hospital in Fairfax County for evaluation and treatment, Mrs. Williams said.
Classes were immediately relocated from that section of the building and were conducted in the schools library, she said.
"We had 10 students in that part of the building who experienced no symptoms," said Mrs. Williams. Those students were under observation in the schools clinic until the end of the day yesterday, she said.
Contrary to early news reports, the school was not evacuated, and by noon the fire marshal deemed the H-Wing was secure and turned it back over to school officials.
"We will continue to investigate until tomorrow, but our preliminary findings seem to be right on," said Lt. Stone.
Although pepper spray is not a lethal substance, fire department officials said it can affect people differently and can be extremely hazardous to individuals who have respiratory problems.
"Speaking from personal experience, it can make you nauseous, light-headed, and it can seriously hamper or abort your ability to breathe and swallow," said Mrs. Williams.
"But once the windows are opened and the rooms are aired out, it is gone," she said.

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