One hospitalized after pepper spray released in Basalt High bathroom

by Chad Abraham, Aspen Daily News Staff Writer

Three people were taken to the hospital on Friday after a student released pepper spray in a bathroom at Basalt High School, setting off a multi-jurisdictional response from authorities.

Nearly 50 people were exposed to the chemical and some who experienced health issues were taken to a nearby facility on the high school campus, according to Matt Avidan, spokesman for Basalt & Rural Fire Protection District. Ten were treated at the scene.

Worried parents inundated the school, which was evacuated, with phone calls as police officers and firefighters donned gas masks to ensure the building was cleared out, said Basalt police Sgt. Penny Paxton.

Authorities from Basalt, Pitkin County, Carbondale and Thomasville responded at 11:51 a.m. on a report that someone had set off a chemical agent, which was later identified as pepper spray.

Police identified one suspect, a student at the school, and referred the case to the Pitkin County District Attorney’s Office. Prosecutor Arnold Mordkin declined to say what charges may be pending or the youth’s age. Paxton said the student may be charged with criminal mischief.

“This scared a lot of people,” she said, adding that police consider the incident a prank.

 Chris Council/Aspen Daily News
Basalt High School students are escorted to an ambulance on Friday afternoon following the release of pepper spray in a bathroom at the school. Forty-nine students were exposed to the chemical spray, with 40 exhibiting symptoms such as troubled breathing, headaches and nausea. Ten students ultimately were treated by paramedics and three were transported to the hospital.

The bathroom where the substance was sprayed is near the front of the school, forcing many of the nearly 500 students and faculty to walk by and be exposed to the substance, Paxton said. The site also is close to the cafeteria, where students were eating and milling about at the time.

“They weren’t even allowed to finish their lunch,” Paxton said.

Students affected were taken to a nearby educational center, where they were treated for headaches, nausea and difficulty breathing. One of the patients taken to the hospital suffers from asthma, according to a Basalt firefighter on the scene.

The Basalt Police Department’s school resource officer, Brian Lemke, started choking on the spray and immediately pulled a fire alarm to evacuate the school, Paxton said.

Unaffected students were taken to the school’s football field bleachers, but then boarded school buses when bad weather moved in.

School resumed later in the afternoon after the building’s doors were opened to ventilate it. The bathroom was cordoned off for the rest of the day to prevent re-exposure.

Charges are being pursued because the student “brought fear to the whole school and community,” Paxton said. “Parents were calling nonstop to check on their children.”