Sheriff’s exercise with tear gas, pepper spray sickens San Bruno elementary students

A San Francisco Sheriff's training exercise with tear gas and pepper spray ended up affecting children and staff at a nearby elementary school in San Bruno.

Sheriff's spokeswoman Tara Moriarty said deputies were participating in a two-hour crowd control training session on Tuesday at 12:45 in an "isolated section" of the San Bruno jail. 

The training involves the release of CS, the abbreviation for the compound 2-chlorobenzalmalononitrile, which is a chemical in tear gas, and OC gas, which is pepper spray. 

Unfortunately, she added, gas from inside the building drifted outside to Portola Elementary School, where teachers and students reported experiencing symptoms including burning sensations in the eyes, nose, and throat.

"When I got out of the car, I sensed it. It was like pepper or something was awry. I thought it was smoke or something," said Mythily Sivarajah, who felt it as she was picking up her kids from school around 2:15 p.m.

Sivarajah said her son has asthma, so he had a severe adverse reaction, including his eyes tearing up.

About two dozen students and teachers were treated by firefighters and paramedics when they started to complain of sore throats.

Students were checked and released to their parents. 


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Interim principal, John Nazar, said he walked the perimeter of the school to try and figure out what it was. 

He said he didn't learn until later that it was tear gas and pepper spray. 

"It was very strange," he said, adding that he didn't know whether to keep the children outside or inside. "It was challenging." 

Moriarty said in all the 20 years that the San Francisco Sheriff’s Office and other Bay Area law enforcement agencies have been conducting training at this site, nothing like this has ever happened before.

She said these trainings are critical to law enforcement because they allow peace officers to test the safety of equipment for potential leaks, and they provide staff with hands-on experience with chemical agents, preparing them both physically and mentally for real-life situations. Officers might use tear gas on a barricaded suspect or at a hostage situation. 

Sheriff Paul Miyamoto said that because Tuesday was windy in San Bruno, the chemical agents were able to waft toward the school. 

The sheriff's office said these "irritants are commonly used by law enforcement agencies as a non-lethal option for subduing combative and violent suspects."

Miyamoto explained that the gas and spray are typically used outside for crowd control. He said they do not use tear gas inside the jail on inmates. 

 Miyamoto also said he's very sorry this happened, and he spoke to the mayor of San Bruno about planning a town hall where community members can get their questions answered. 

In light of this accident, the sheriff's office is "pausing all future chemical agent training exercises" while officials review current training practices. 

San Bruno Jail. 

Portola Elementary School in San Bruno.