School Evacuated…Because of a Dinner Plate

Well, PART of a Dinner Plate

The students were evacuated to the football field as Hazmat teams rushed to the scene. The local prosecutor was alerted, so were the police. Responders entered the building and investigated room by room. What calamity beset Haddon Township High School in New Jersey’s Camden County on Friday? A bomb threat? A gas leak? Anthrax?

Worse. Dinnerware.

Specifically, Fiestaware, the colorful plates that took America by storm during the Depression. A sophomore had brought a quarter-size piece to his science class, because some of the plates were originally glazed with a red color that contained uranium oxide (at least until our WWII war effort required uranium for the atom bomb, at which point the government confiscated Fiestaware’s stash). The student had received a Geiger counter for Christmas and was going to do a little experiment in class.

That was on Monday. His teacher thanked him for bringing in the sample. By Friday, someone had determined it was a biohazard.

At 11:15 a.m., The Chery Hill Courier Post first reported, the students were evacuated. The sophomore (whose name was not disclosed to the media) wasn’t one of them because, due to Covid protocols, he attends school in person only Mondays and Thursdays.

But he did not go unconfronted. By 2 p.m. there were six vehicles, lights flashing, in front of the student’s home, including one from the Camden County Prosecutor’s office, according to The Philadelphia Inquirer.

The teen emerged to explain that the whole response, “Was a dramatic over-exaggeration…I gave them a quarter-size [piece of plate] that was enclosed in plastic so it couldn’t be tampered with that gave off less radiation than most things you can find in an antique store. It was intended to be used as a source for calibrating Geiger counters.”

A little perspective maybe?

Instead it became a source for calibrating school board over-reactivity. While the evacuated kids were allowed back into school after half an hour, the school board released a notice that a student had brought a “potentially dangerous substance” into the school.

If I were a mom there, I’d assume the teen brought in a vial of ricin – not a chip off the most collected dinnerware in America.

Equally dramatically, Haddon Township Superintendent Robert Fisicaro issued a statement announcing, “No injuries were reported.” Maybe because it’s hard to get injured by a tiny piece of dinnerware in a plastic bag?

The prosecutor nonetheless asked the public, ”If you have any information that could help this investigation,” to please contact the police.

Hey! I actually do have some information: “There is no record of anyone ever becoming sick from manufacturing or using radioactive Fiestaware,” according to ScienceNotes.org.

The whole incident calls to mind the  evacuation of Totino-Grace high school in Fridley, Minnesota several years back because of a “chemical spill.”

That is, a student had broken a thermometer.

And frankly, both these incidents remind me of the kabuki concern shown by fire and police departments when a child is discovered waiting in a car a short while, neither freezing nor boiling, while their parents run an errand. Here’s one example: a child who snoozed for 20 minutes while his parents bought Christmas lights was rushed to the hospital in an ambulance, even though everyone could see he was fine.

Pretending that ordinary incidents are dangerous and ordinary objects are toxic recalibrates reality. When everyday life is treated as threatening, the authorities get to wail on anyone who still gets that a wait is just a wait, and a plate is just a plate.