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Dutchess school sulfuric acid spill prompts probe

Van Wyck Junior High School in Fishkill Plains,

Van Wyck Junior High School in Fishkill Plains, New York. (June 13, 2012)

Officials are investigating how two eighth-graders got their hands on a 4-ounce bottle of sulfuric acid that led to 19 students and a custodian being sent to the hospital earlier this week, Wappingers Central School District interim Superintendent Marco Pochintesta said Friday.

The Van Wyck Junior High School students were watching a film in science class on Wednesday under the supervision of a substitute teacher when two students began tossing around and splattering fluid from the full bottle of chemicals that Pochintesta said district policy required that the bottle be kept inside a locked cabinet.

"The bottle was not secured," said Pochintesta. "It was out of the cabinet" when the students found it.

Police were initially unsure if the cap of the bottle of sulfuric acid had been intentionally taken off. Pochintesta confirmed on Friday that "student misconduct" was a contributing factor, but refused to say what disciplinary measures were being taken against either of the students involved or the substitute teacher.

Nineteen of the 29 students in the class were taken by ambulance to Saint Francis Hospital and Health Centers in Poughkeepsie as a precaution. A custodian who was exposed to the acid also was sent to the hospital. All of the injuries were considered to be minor and no one involved needed to be admitted to the hospital, Pochintesta said.

The class's regular teacher was out of the classroom grading science exams that day. The replacement teacher is a 4-year district substitute who has worked at the Fishkill Plains junior high in the past, Pochintesta said.

The interim superintendent said the district does not train substitutes for how to handle emergencies such as the acid incident.

Some parents expressed concern over a delayed response from the school on Wednesday. One parent reported getting a message early Wednesday evening about the incident.

"I'm aware of the length of time it took to get information out. We were dealing with a rather large scale incident involving multiple agencies," Pochintesta said. "It's understandable for signals to get crossed."

He said the district is looking into ways to improve communication.

Van Wyck Junior High was named a state and national "School to Watch" by the New York Department of Education and the Essential Elements Schools to Watch leadership team. The honor will be awarded at a conference taking place in Washington D.C. June 21-23. Pochintesta said the school principal is slated to attend.

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