Jonesboro High Haz mat scare forced evacuation

By Curt Yeomans


Clayton County Police officers arrested Yisreal Yoshamma, 17, a student at Jonesboro High School, on Tuesday night and charged him with interrupting a school in connection with a hazardous materials scare at the school earlier in the day.

Five Jonesboro High School students, a Spanish teacher, and a paraprofessional, were taken to local hospitals on Tuesday morning after a hazardous materials situation at the school led to breathing difficulties, irritated eyes, and a sore throat.

Roughly 1,400 students were evacuated.

Led by the Clayton County Fire Department's Hazardous Materials Unit, dozens of county police officers, firefighters, paramedics, along with representatives from the Georgia Emergency Management Agency, Red Cross and school system officials responded to the incident.

As a result of the scare, police closed Southlake Parkway, between Highway 138 and Battlecreek Road near the school. Mt. Zion Boulevard, from Southlake Parkway, to James A. Jackson Elementary School, also was shutdown for the same reason.

"For the amount of public safety equipment and manpower he tied up [Tuesday], to make an arrest by the end of the day is pretty gratifying," said Officer Tim Owens, a spokesman for the Clayton County Police Department.

When police officers and firefighters arrived at the school, they immediately began searching for what caused the symptoms shown by the students and faculty members.

The fire department's hazardous materials unit brought in detection devices designed to find "the tiniest particle" of chemicals, but found no cause for the symptoms experienced by students and staffers, said Alex Cohilas, Clayton County Fire Department Chief.

However, police and fire officials quickly began to suspect the students and faculty members had a reaction to O.C. spray, or pepper spray.

"The officers who went into the affected hallway to help evacuate students could smell the faint remnants of the odor in the air, and their lips began to tingle," Officer Owens said. "We're exposed to O.C. spray as part of our training, so we believe that's what caused this."

Yoshamma took police to one of the school's athletic fields to show officers where he allegedly disposed of the canister he used in the hallway, Owens said. Police have not released a motive for Yoshamma's alleged actions.

The canister was not labeled, and police sent it to a lab for testing, Owens said. Further charges are pending, but the nature of those charges will depend on what was in the canister, he added.

The students and faculty members who were treated began to develop symptoms of a chemical reaction during a class change in the school's 100 hallway at approximately 9:15 a.m., Cohilas said. School officials immediately shut off the ventilation system to prevent any chemical fumes from spreading across the school.

A decontamination tent was set up in the school's parking lot. The affected persons were taken into the tent, stripped, washed and given protective Tyvek suits to wear for the remainder of the day. Their clothes were sealed in haz mat bags for inspection.

Two students, one male and one female, were taken to Henry Medical Center, and the remaining patients were transported to Southern Regional Medical Center, said Chief Cohilas.

Police, fire and school officials were not sure on Tuesday afternoon if the students and faculty members had been released from the hospitals.

The other students at the school evacuated the building around 9:25 a.m. They sat outside the school for more than two hours before 600 students were transported to the Clayton County Performing Arts Center, and another 800 pupils were sent to Mt. Zion High School for lunch.

"We knew something was wrong when we kept waiting and waiting, and kept getting farther and farther away from the school," said Sevan Vazquez, 15, a freshman who was in his second period class when the school's fire alarm went off. "About 30 minutes before we left for the Performing Arts Center, I found out what was going on. I was sitting next to a counselor and she explained the situation to me.

"We were sitting outside the [school] for about two and half hours. We weren't really panicking, though. We were with our friends, so we just started hanging out. We were in responsible hands. The teachers weren't going to let any harm come to us."

School system spokesman Charles White said buses were immediately rounded up by the district's transportation department, while the nutrition department made arrangements to get enough food and cafeteria workers to Mt. Zion High School to feed all of its students, plus all of Jonesboro's students.

He said the students were provided with water while they waited for school buses to take them to their evacuation sites.

James A. Jackson Elementary School, which is across the street from the high school, was not evacuated because the incident was contained to Jonesboro High School, White added.

Chief Cohilas gave school officials permission to reopen the high school at 1 p.m. Students were brought back to the school an hour later so they could collect their belongings.

Classes will resume today at the school.