Campus Safety and the Office of Student Development were notified March 11 that three students had been experimenting with household chemicals in Neal residence hall.
The previous week, the students had been asking their chemistry professor questions concerning the effects of mixing certain chemicals. The professor became concerned and contacted the Office of Student Development when their questions started to diverge from the subject of the course.
“I was there when they started making things. They were really excited that they could make things they were learning about in class,” said junior John Perleberg, a friend of the students. “They asked two questions that in their minds were unrelated, but in [the professor’s] mind weren’t — about oxidizing chemicals and strong oxidizers. The professor looked up the reaction and found it was very dangerous.”
Rather than confronting the students, Perleberg said, the professor called Associate Dean of Students Debbie Southern, who had them escorted to her office by Campus Safety.
The investigation ultimately involved personnel from the Knox Chemistry Department, the Office of Student Development, Campus Safety and Facilities Services, in addition to the Galesburg Fire and Police Departments, each of which were provided information about the materials known to be present.
“There were a number of chemicals involved, many of which are commercially available in the Galesburg community,” said Director of Campus Safety John Schlaf.
After the Office of Student Development confirmed there might have been unsafe experimentation in a residence area, Campus Safety searched the rooms and recovered the chemicals from the first floor of Neal.
The students told Campus Safety officers they had been storing the chemicals in their rooms and mixing them in the bathroom.
“The students were cooperative, as far as I know,” said Dean Lawrence Breitborde.
Dean Xavier Romano said the students called and told him where all the materials were stored so they could be cleaned up safely.
“They just told them where [the chemicals] were and exactly what they made,” said Perleberg. “They didn’t try to hide anything.”
The most dangerous substance that was found was brominated water.
“They weren’t just making whatever they could make,” said Perleberg. “They were sticking to things they knew, or they thought, were relatively safe. The most important thing was that they had no malicious intent.”
Once the chemicals had been confiscated, Breitborde said, the college was still trying to assess potential danger. The first floor bathroom was closed and Galesburg Fire Chief John Cratty, an expert in the area of hazardous materials, was brought in to determine whether there was any harmful residue. Cratty confirmed that the area was clean and there was no danger.
“They did a good job containing their elixirs, but they found out they were doing something more dangerous than they thought,” said Romano, who stressed that he didn’t want to dampen the students’ intellectual curiosity. “If they’d done it in the labs, there wouldn’t have been any issues,” he said.
The college arranged for the students to spend Tuesday night in a Galesburg hotel. There was an administrative hearing March 12, during which it was decided that the students would be suspended and banned from campus. Breitborde said he suspects next year is the earliest they can apply to come back.
“I think [the punishment] was appropriate given what was done,” said Romano. “They acknowledged that they didn’t think it through. They’re wonderful people, real Knox students, and I’m looking forward to welcoming them back at some juncture.
“It was one of those learning lessons that’s never pleasant, but I think it will stick.”
The students will also be required to pay part of the cost of hiring the hazardous materials inspectors and disposing of the chemicals.
“I think the cooperative effort of those on and off campus led to a timely resolution to ensure the safety of everyone involved, which was the underlying goal,” said Schlaf.