Mercury spill locks down school

Published 7:29 pm Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Parents wait for their children to be released from Buchanan High School Wednesday after a student spilled a small amount of mercury in a classroom. Students were released one at a time to parents after being checked for contamination and handing over their shoes to authorities. Daily Star photo/CRAIG HAUPERT

BUCHANAN — Buchanan High School was locked down for several hours Wednesday after a student spilled a small container full of liquid mercury he brought in from outside the school.

Eighth-grader Jason Harkrider said the spill happened in teacher Lane Martin’s eighth-grade math class. Harkrider was sitting next to the student who brought in a “medicine bottle” containing mercury. Harkrider said the student was playing with the bottle when it spilled.

“He tried to hide it, but it was all over the place,” Harkrider said.

Richard Bell, Buchanan Community Schools business manager and acting superintendent, said the spill occurred around 11 a.m. Once Martin saw the spill, he opened a window, evacuated the room and locked it until authorities arrived to address the spill.

Harvey Burnett, of the Buchanan Police Department, said elementary mercury has been banned in Michigan schools since the beginning of 2004 and that Buchanan High School was in compliance.

“Mercury spills that are not addressed properly can result in wide spread contamination,” Burnett said.

Because of the possibility of contamination, students were told to stay in their rooms before being released one at a time to their parents at the end of the school day. Students had to hand over their shoes to authorities before leaving the building. Burnett said the Michigan Health Department is scanning the shoes for contamination. Non-contaminated shoes should be returned Thursday, Bell said.

It took until around 4:30 p.m. for the last students to leave. Teachers and administrators came afterwards.

No students were contaminated, according to Steve Torres of the Berrien County Health Department.

“They wouldn’t have been allowed to leave if they had detected anything on them, so there should be no public health worries at all,” Torres said.

Bell said no disciplinary action has been taken against the student who brought in the mercury.

“It is still under investigation. We are still looking into it, gathering information,” Bell said.

Several students said the student that brought in the mercury had done so before. Harkrider said school officials had caught the student with mercury Tuesday.

When asked if the student had brought mercury into the school before, Burnett said police and school officials are still investigating.

Bell said he hopes school will be open Thursday, but won’t know until the building is tested for contamination.