Chewing gum hospitalizes 10 kids at Dexter Park Innovation School in Orange

By MARY BYRNE

Staff Writer

Published: 04-04-2023 6:48 PM

ORANGE — School and safety officials are investigating an incident at Dexter Park Innovation School after as many as 10 students were transported to area hospitals on Tuesday with adverse reactions from chewing gum reportedly containing “levels of pepper.”

According to Fire Chief James Young, School Resource Officer Chad Softic requested police, fire and other emergency personnel to the school at around 2 p.m. for students “with an exposure to an unknown agent.” Students appeared to be experiencing “mild to moderate” reactions, including skin irritation and respiratory tract irritation, as well as some mucus reaction in the ears, eyes and nose.

First responders were able to determine the gum contained pepper after obtaining the packaging, according to Young.

Ultimately, six students were transported by ambulance to Athol Hospital and Heywood Hospital in Gardner. Baystate Franklin Medical Center in Greenfield was unable to take patients, as it was already at capacity, according to Young. Four additional students were transported by guardians.

Young explained that the incident was declared a mass casualty incident by first responders, a routine call that indicates a response “exceeds our local capabilities.” Calling for a mass casualty incident is rare, he said, noting there hasn’t been one in at least a few years in Orange.

“It allows us to call additional ambulance services from farther away and to transport to hospitals we don’t normally transport to,” he said.

In a message to families, Elizabeth Teahan-Zielinski, superintendent of the Ralph C. Mahar Regional and Union 73 school districts, wrote that a student who had purchased gum online subsequently shared the product with students during recess. For some who ingested the gum, it caused “digestive issues, including burning in the mouth and esophagus.” Others, who hadn’t chewed the gum but accepted it, had “immediate skin reactions, including eye irritation, if they rubbed their eyes after touching it.”

The incident remains under investigation by both police and school personnel, according to Teahan-Zielinski.

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“I ask that you speak with your child about bringing in candy or accepting such items in school, which are not permitted as part of our wellness policy,” she wrote. “It is difficult for students to understand that items can often contain ingredients others are allergic to or [that were] created to cause physical distress.”

Young said while he heard discussions that the incident may have been related to an online trend, he couldn’t confirm. He echoed Teahan-Zielinski’s advice for parents and guardians to talk to their children.

Have an “open conversation with your kids,” he said. “You never know what something could contain, whether it could harm themselves or others.”

Reporter Mary Byrne can be reached at mbyrne@recorder.com or 413-930-4429. Twitter: @MaryEByrne.

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