LINDEN, NJ — More than 1,700 students at Linden High School were unexpectedly sent home before lunch on Thursday, Dec. 17, and the 11 a.m. dismissal wasn’t an early Christmas gift from the district.
Nineteen cafeteria employees reported feeling ill at around 10 a.m., which school officials later said was probably caused by pepper spray being discharged in the area. At the time, though, staff members who felt sick had developed “similar symptoms” while working in the kitchen area, leading school officials to believe there was something wrong with the school’s food.
After the workers were transported to the nurse’s suite at Linden High School, Linden superintendent Danny Robertozzi pulled the plug on the school day on the recommendation of the Linden Fire Department.
“They didn’t find anything. They recommended we call in Union County Hazmat as a precaution. We instituted our relocation and evacuation plan to ensure that all of our students were safe. The decision was made, about an hour after that, to dismiss the students for the day, because we weren’t going to be able to feed them,” said Robertozzi, during a press conference on the steps of Linden High School. “So all of our students today have been dismissed.”
An investigation from Union County Hazmat found no evidence to suggest the food was a cause for concern, and instead sent them looking for an inflammatory substance, such as fumes, which may have caused the workers to develop their symptoms.
In the time Union County Hazmat was on-scene, there was nothing distinctive in the kitchen area which could be seen or smelled, according to Hazmat Lt. William Hernandez.
“Right now we have the Hazmat team inside. They’re looking for any sort of gas or leaking, from a refrigerator, ovens or any other foul odors in there,” said Hernandez. “There’s no immediate concern that it’ll be found, but they want to conduct a thorough investigation.”
It was likely that pepper spray had been discharged somewhere near the kitchen area, school officials said, citing the results of the Union County Hazmat investigation. But whatever it was that caused thousands of students to be sent home early, “this substance has since dissipated and is not detectable,” according to a press release issued at 1 p.m. on the day of the events.
By that point, Union County Hazmat and the Linden Fire Department had cleared the school for return the next day. Classes were held as usual on Friday, Dec. 18, as well as the following week.
“On behalf of the Linden Board of Education, I would like to thank all of the faculty, staff, and administration of Linden High School, along with the Linden Fire Department, Linden Police Department, and the Union County Hazmat team for keeping
our students safe,” said Robertozzi in a statement. “Students are also to be commended for acting quickly and responsibly during this situation.”