Families of kids exposed to tear gas in Florence file notice of claim

Posted at 7:00 PM, Apr 28, 2017
and last updated 2017-04-29 07:33:43-04

Their children were exposed to tear gas, and several Florence families are taking action.

Don Cartier, an attorney and CEO of Cartier Law, represents four of the families of the students who were exposed to the gas during a Department of Corrections training drill.

Florence Unified School District officials said at about 11:30 a.m. on February 15, a K-8 lunch monitor and physical education teacher reported students entering the cafeteria with coughs, and burning eyes and throats. 

The district immediately put the school on a "rainy day" schedule as they tried to figure out what happened.

The Florence Fire Department responded and examined 25 students. School officials said initially that eight students showed signs of illness. 

A spokesman for the DOC called it a "routine quarterly drill", but lawyers are questioning why the school was not notified prior to a harmful chemical being released into the air, in close proximity to an elementary school.

School officials said they typically do not get notification of drills at the prison complex. 

"The prison should've thought of a different day to do it if it was windy," said Michael Hopkins, a private investigator hired by the Cartier firm.

Cartier said the families who he had spoken to alleged their children had suffered greatly.

"They were negligently poisoned by the Arizona Department of Corrections," said Cartier. "Our children at Florence Elementary School were playing on the playground, when out of nowhere their eyes started to burn and become bloodshot red. Their throats began to swell. They were suffocating, crying, and vomiting. A seemingly ordinary day turned into a day of panic and confusion and hysteria." 

The law firm has filed a notice of claim, and had it served to Governor Doug Ducey, the Arizona Attorney General's Office, and the Director for the DOC.

"In no way, shape, or form are we declaring war on the Arizona Department of Corrections. We fully recognize the hard work they do on a daily basis," said Cartier. 

He added this was about accountability, responsibility to a community, and safety for those living around a prison.

"To their credit, the Arizona Department of Corrections took the responsibility, full responsibility," said Cartier, but he also felt they had downplayed how serious the incident was. 

"They claim they investigated this and the substance that poisoned these children was tear gas," said Cartier.

He hired Alpha & Omega Public Safety and Security Investigative Service to look into the incident.

Commissioner Michael Hopkins, who works with the private security firm, drafted a report to share his findings with the media.

He said he had learned the type of tear gas used was called CS gas, and was routinely used by law enforcement and military units for training. It was not something children should have been exposed to.

When asked what the families were seeking, Cartier said, "It is difficult to quantify the emotional distress a child feels. We feel comfortable in filing $100,000 for every child that was injured."

He also added, "This type of specific training to get correctional officers exposed to CS gas is only to be conducted in an offsite remote location due to density and potency of the gas itself."

Cartier said he is looking to make sure this never happens again.

ABC15 reached out to the DOC for a statement.

A spokesman said, "The department doesn’t comment on pending or possible litigation."