Fulton County Schools officials (from left) Shannon Flounnory (executive director of safety and security), Clifford Jones (chief academic officer) and Gyimah Whitaker (area superintendent of South Learning Community) speak to reporters during a press conference Thursday, Feb. 21, about the Sandtown Middle School incident last week when 28 students were sent to local hospitals after eating Valentine’s Day treats. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

Valentine’s snack at south Fulton school contained THC

A state crime lab found THC, a mind-altering chemical in marijuana, laced in a Valentine’s Day cereal snack that officials believe a student brought to a south Fulton County middle school and shared with other kids.

Twenty-eight Sandtown Middle School students were sent to local hospitals Feb. 14 and four stayed overnight for observation after eating snacks and candy and showing signs of drug intoxication: hallucination, red, watery eyes and “frantic” crying.

The GBI said Thursday its crime lab found THC in one of 46 food items collected by Fulton County Schools police, who are conducting a criminal investigation. School officials also took statements from students and teachers as part of a separate disciplinary review, which could lead to a hearing and result in long-term suspension or expulsion.

“There are going to be consequences,” said Shannon Flounnory, executive director of the school district’s safety and security division, at a press conference Thursday. Interim superintendent Cindy Loe wasn’t at the press conference but echoed that sentiment later in the day at the school board meeting. “We will take the necessary student disciplinary actions or criminal prosecution if warranted,” Loe said.

While the GBI test results answered one big question — what it was that made students sick — many other questions remain unanswered a week after the medical emergency that Chief Academic Officer Clifford Jones said was part of a “national crisis” of drug-infused foods, or edibles.

Loe said the district is looking into the “increased threat edibles have become in our nation,” adding, “this is not theoretical.”

School police retrieved Rice Krispy treats and heart-shaped lollipops as evidence. The GBI expects to finish testing dozens of food items by Monday.

Parents have plenty of their own questions and have expressed frustration with the district’s response and communication.

“I’m upset because I feel like I leave my child in the hands of the school administrators every day and while on their watch she was drugged,” said Teair Thompson, whose seventh-grade daughter had bloodshot eyes, a severe headache and a burning feeling in her stomach after eating lollipops.

Another parent voiced her frustration at the board meeting, saying she felt she got more information over Facebook and Instagram than from the district.

Thompson said she was “furious” to learn that THC was detected in a food sample. The school prohibits students from distributing candy and baked goods without advance approval, and Thompson said teachers and administrators should have enforced that rule.

School police believe the drug-laced treats were shared around lunchtime. Flounnory said it is “unreasonable” to expect that a school staff member can supervise every student every minute of the day.

Willie G. Davis Jr., who has an eighth-grader at Sandtown who did not fall ill, said the district must do a thorough investigation. It needs to uncover where students got drug-laced food and if anyone else was involved.

“It’s serious enough that you have to have a hearing. It’s serious enough that a complaint should be filed,” he said. “Otherwise, it is a slap on the wrist.”

In the week following the Sandtown sickness, parents blasted the school district for what they said was slow and incomplete communication. They said school officials should have updated parents more frequently.

The district’s first priority was to get in touch with families of students who fell ill, said spokeswoman Susan Romanick, in a statement. Staff also went to hospitals to be with students and families. She said a series of phone messages and other updates followed.

School was closed for a midwinter break for three days after the incident.

“It has been a real week,” Linda Bryant, the board member who represents the area that includes Sandtown, said with a sigh when introducing Loe at the board meeting.

The school district released its police department’s initial incident report on Tuesday, which The Atlanta Journal-Constitution requested last week though the open-records law.

Students’ symptoms included hallucinations, disorientation, stomach pain, headache, dizziness, vomiting and watery red eyes. The report noted students “frantically crying off and on.”

“They couldn’t tell me where they were at the time nor could they explain what had happened to them,” the police report stated.

Flounnory said that while 28 students were taken to hospitals, officials don’t believe all of them ate drug-laced treats. He said some students who said they felt ill were taken to the hospital as a precaution.

District officials said they plan to educate students about the dangers of edibles and about eating food from unknown sources.

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