A number of students who gathered outside Prince of Wales Collegiate (PWC) during recess Wednesday morning expecting to see a fight ended up with burning eyes, irritated skin and coughs after one person fired a stream of bear spray at another person, hitting others nearby and affecting even more when the orange substance was carried by the wind.
Students who witnessed the incident described a chaotic scene.
“Where it was so windy it caught everybody in the eyes,” said student Stephen Young. “People were shouting and taking off their shirts, and people were handing out bottles of water (to wash out their eyes).”
Student Walter Deering said he and a friend were sitting in a car when they saw the crowd gathering.
“We knew something was going to happen. So I got out and was standing there, and there were some guys who came there going back and forth at each other,” he said. “The dude with the pepper spray took it out of his pocket and started spraying right in everybody’s face.”
The school went into secure mode.
In no time there were several ambulances and police vehicles in the parking lot, with students being treated both in the school and in the ambulances. Some students were seen with their shirts off and with triage tags attached to their arms.
A number of students were milling around the outside of the school as parents showed up. Some students were walking around, or sitting in vehicles and shouting at one another at times, or at members of the media.
One parent told The Telegram that when she reached her son by phone — her son had been hit in the eye with bear spray — he told her that he was OK and was wearing a patch after being treated by paramedics, and not to bother to drop by the school.
“I was very anxious and rushed here,” she said.
RNC media relations officer Const. Geoff Higdon said at least one student was taken to hospital for treatment, but there were no serious injuries as a result of the altercation.
He said RNC members responded to the scene about 10:45 a.m.
Higdon said he could not comment on stories circulating that weapons carried into the expected fight included a taser, a bat, a hatchet and a golf club.
“Staff reported (the altercation) to police and there were weapons involved. One of them was an aerosol spray, possibly a bear spray or pepper spray product,” Higdon said. “Several onlookers in the area — anywhere from 15 to 20 individuals — were cross-contaminated when at least one of the individuals deployed the aerosol spray.”
At least one video circulating on social media — which suggests it is the altercation at PWC — shows a person pulling something from his pocket and firing the aerosol spray directly at another person, then widening his aim to take in others.
The short video is also posted to The Telegram website.
Higdon noted early reports circulated on social media that a firearm was involved. He said that was not the case.
“Our investigators have no evidence of a firearm brought onto school property, certainly no evidence of a firearm discharged on school property,” he said. “We did receive a report that a gunshot was heard in a neighbouring area. That may or may not have been connected with the situation. We did deploy resources to that area. No evidence was found that in fact that was the case. No other information that a gunshot was heard.”
A parent who did not want to be identified said fights at schools these days are no longer the fights of years past, of one on one with no weapons.
“Fights when I was in high school, not that I’m condoning fighting, involved fists,” the parent said. “Now it’s scary because you don’t know what a person is going to bring to a fight.”
Young, Deering and friends Timothy Barrett and Raymond Chaulk say they have become accustomed to incidents happening at school over the past few years — fights, knife incidents, bomb threats.
“Last year, on the second day of school, somebody pulled a large knife on another student in the parking lot,” Young said.
“It’s the same thing every year,” Deering added. “Stuff like this goes on.”
Higdon said there are incidents at schools each year that the RNC is called to, but not too many like Wednesday’s incident.
“This is fortunately not a common type of call,” he said. “In terms of the escalating amount of violence in this particular situation, that is certainly something we are concerned about. Any time students are injured or affected by, in this case aerosol spray and those types of things, it can be pretty traumatic for students.
“I know the school has done an excellent job making sure there are counsellors and those type of people available for students, and the paramedics did an excellent job making sure there were enough resources here.”
Investigators from the RNC’s major crime unit are investigating and have been speaking with witnesses, students and staff.
Higdon said that if anyone witnessed the incident but hasn’t spoken to police, or if people have videos of the altercation, they should contact police.
“We encourage parents to have a conversation with their children and if there is video of the incident to encourage them to come forward to us,” he said.
The Newfoundland and Labrador English School District confirmed Wednesday the school was in secure mode and acknowledged the reports the incident involved bear spray.