Mysterious substance sickens dozens at Berkeley elementary school

Authorities are investigating a potential environmental issue that made kids at Malcolm X sick Thursday. Photo: BUSD

Dozens of students at Malcolm X Elementary School reported feeling dizzy and nauseous after a choral performance Thursday from what the school believes could be an environmental issue in the auditorium, officials and parents said.

“We are investigating a potential environmental issue in our auditorium,” said acting principal Candyce Cannon in an automated message sent to parents at the South Berkeley School around noon.

Cannon told the families that a “small number of students” were reporting the mild symptoms.

According to a statement from Berkeley Unified, several more students and a teacher reported similar symptoms again later in the day, for an estimated total of 50 people feeling ill.


None of the kids needed to be taken to the hospital, said Berkeley Police Department Officer Byron White, a spokesman. The school is still open, but parents were given the option of picking up their kids. Parents of kids who were affected were told to come get their children.

Cannon said the school immediately called the police and the Berkeley Fire Department in to assess the situation, along with district and city public health staff.

“Air monitoring and field screenings conducted by the Fire Department and the environmental consultant retained by the District included tests for methane, carbon monoxide, hydrogen sulfide and volatile organic compounds, none of which was detected,” according to the BUSD statement.

The auditorium and two adjacent classrooms have been closed off, and another school performance scheduled for tonight has been canceled, Cannon said in the message.

Hannah Slattery-Weisberg, a Malcolm X fourth grader, was in the middle of performing with her choral group Thursday morning when she saw a classmate “stumble and grab onto my friend’s arm.”

Teachers led that student out of the auditorium while “we kept singing,” she told Berkeleyside.

After another student became ill, the show was stopped and the kids were all brought back to their classrooms, Slattery-Weisberg said. There, two students threw up, according to the student.


“I was feeling kind of woozy,” the 10-year-old said. “We all kind of had headaches, and we all felt kind of tired. A lot of kids were really feeling bad and some kids were crying.”

Firefighters checked the students’ vitals and “there wasn’t anything abnormal about them,” according to White.

He said authorities were still running tests at the school Thursday afternoon, while classes carried on for students who didn’t get picked up. Some parents told Berkeleyside they took their children home after hearing the news.

The school has asked families who want to retrieve their children to use the Ellis Street entrance, and not come into the front office.

Berkeleyside will update this story when more information is available. Malcolm X told parents an update would be sent out by 6 p.m.