37 treated after pepper spray incident at Brandon middle school

Published May 4, 2013

BRANDON — Thirty-six Brandon students and a school employee were hospitalized Friday afternoon after a student discharged pepper spray at McLane Middle School, authorities said.

It happened about 2:30 p.m. in a crowded hallway, with students moving between classes, said Hills­borough County school district spokesman Stephen Hegarty.

Authorities say 93 students and three teachers were affected — "coughing, watery eyes, scratchy throats," Hegarty said. A 12-year-old girl was taken into custody Friday afternoon on a misdemeanor charge of disruption of school function, according to the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office. She was taken to the Juvenile Assessment Center, where she was set to be released to a parent.

Solanch Echevarria, 14, described the incident as chaotic and "like a horror movie."

She was in hall 200, which contains mostly sixth-grade classes, when, according to Solanch, "all of a sudden someone started spraying Mace."

"Everybody was running out of the 200 building," she later told reporters. "There was crying and screaming."

Two of her friends were affected by the spray. One girl's eyes started burning, Solanch said, and the other girl's nose started burning and she had trouble breathing.

Authorities evacuated the hall and set up a triage in the school's cafeteria. And though many were affected, all injuries appeared to be minor, according to the Hillsborough Sheriff's Office — including those of three students who had pre-existing respiratory problems, such as asthma.

Those three students were taken to Brandon Regional Hospital by Hillsborough Fire Rescue's "advanced life support" ambulance as a precaution, according to the agency.

Fourteen other people were taken to the hospital by AmeriCare ambulances, and 20 more were transported by a school bus. All were treated and released, the Sheriff's Office said.

At 5:30 p.m., authorities were interviewing a 12-year-old suspect in the school's office, at 306 N Knights Ave.

"Pepper spray does not have lasting effects, but it is really painful in the sense of burning in the eyes and coughing and that, of course, was the intent," Hegarty said. He later said criminal charges against the child are possible. Authorities did not release the child's name. Sheriff's Maj. Clyde Eisenberg said deputies are investigating whether the incident was premeditated.

McLane principal Frank Oliver said he thinks the student did not anticipate this type of reaction.

"We live in a time where kids don't take things as seriously as they should," Oliver said. "I'm sure the person who did this didn't know all of this was going to happen and didn't expect there would be all of this attention."

Oliver said he was very disheartened.

"We just got through a good testing season," he said. "I'm very disappointed with all this commotion."

Times researcher John Martin and Times staff writers Marlene Sokol, Keeley Sheehan and Will Hobson contributed to this report.