WASHINGTON HEIGHTS — Authorities said 16 fourth-grade children were taken to local hospitals after they ate what they thought was candy but was actually nicotine medication meant to help people quit smoking.
At least five ambulances were sent to Wendell Green Elementary School, 1150 W. 96th St., in Washington Heights Wednesday after children became sick about 10 a.m., the Chicago Fire Department said.
The Fire Department said the kids ingested NiQuitin Minis, which are over-the-counter lozenges that aid in quitting smoking. The medication contains nicotine.
"At no time was there a threat to the safety of the school," the statement said. "We thank the principal and the elementary school staff for taking quick and appropriate action to ensure the health of all students involved were tended to immediately and to return the school to normal operation."
Parents and other relatives flocked to the school, panicking when they saw helicopters hovering over the school and heard that something might have happened to their children.
Washington Heights resident Mikita Dunbar, who has two nieces and two nephews at the school, said a friend called her after hearing about the incident on the news.
"Somebody called me and said, 'You need to check on them.' So I just ran out of the house," said Dunbar, 24.
Dunbar said she rushed to the front desk of the school, where she heard good news.
"They just said, 'They are fine. It wasn't them,'" Dunbar said.
But for some of the parents of sick children, the ordeal was a nightmare.
Mother Lawanda Turner, 35, went to three hospitals trying to find her 10-year-old son, Chas Garfield, one of the kids who had ingested the lozenges.
Turner said no one from the school told her about what happened to her son or what hospital he was taken to. She had to hear about the incident from her 14-year-old daughter, Myah Garfield, who said she went into a bathroom at the school to call her mother.
Myah had heard from classmates that her little brother had taken pills. She said she had no idea what kind of pills they were.
"I'm frustrated and I'm irritated because my daughter shouldn't be the one to tell me my son was in the hospital," Turner said.
She finally found her son at Roseland Hospital, she said. He felt nauseated but seemed OK otherwise, his mother said. The hospital released Chas, and his mother came to the school to pick up Myah.
Turner said she wished the school had a better plan for when situations like this happen.
"It's terrifying when any parent hears your child has ingested some foreign substance you didn't give them," Turner said. "It could have been anything."
"I thank God he's OK," Turner said.
Wendell Green mother Julia, 23, who declined to give her last name, was also critical of the school’s response.
“I’m wondering if the school will send a note home,” she said. “I think they’re probably going to leave a lot of people real clueless.”
Like many parents, Julia first heard about the incident from relatives and the news. A close friend went to the school Wednesday morning and handed his cell phone to Julia’s Kindergarten-aged daughter so “I could hear my baby and make sure she was OK,” Julia said.
“I would’ve probably come up here much sooner [if we hadn’t done that],” Julia said outside the school Wednesday afternoon, as she awaited her daughter’s dismissal.
Oscar Wilson, 26, who has sons in the first and fifth grade, said it was “messed up” Wendell Green hadn’t done a better job notifying parents.
Wilson first learned what transpired when a DNAinfo.com Chicago reporter interviewed him outside the school Wednesday. To his knowledge, the school hadn’t sent home notes with his children.
“I’d want to know about something like that,” Wilson said. “Schools need better supervision.”
Grandmother Pamela Jones, 50, said it “was just a terrible accident” and the “one-time event” won’t make her family rethink safety.
“[My grandson] knows not to take strange things from strangers. Don’t you, Boston?” she asked, looking down at her grandson, 6. “We aren’t worried.”
Kids ages 9 and 10 ingested the lozenges, the Fire Department said. Sixteen were taken to hospitals in good condition, while two declined treatment, the Fire Department said.
The school went back to normal operations after the incident, Sainvilus said, and no other kids were sent home.
Nurses and social workers have been dispatched to the school to provide additional support as needed, CPS said.