Three children required medical attention at Karonhianónhnha Tsi Ionterihwaienstáhkhwa on Monday after 14 students in grades four and five ingested a hot sauce up to 50 times spicier than Tabasco.
All three children have reportedly recovered from the incident, which induced panic, vomiting, and a nosebleed, although at least one parent is worried about lingering emotional impacts. Symptoms were treated and monitored on site by Kahnawake Fire Brigade (KFB) paramedics.
“Hot sauce was never even on our radar in the school system,” said Kahentoréhtha Jacco, the school’s principal.
The Kahnawake Education Center (KEC) is now seeking to quell community outrage after one parent posted about the incident on social media, characterizing it as a bullying incident. According to KEC, an investigation into what happened did not indicate that bullying was involved, but the administration acknowledges that some of the 14 children felt pressured to sample the sauce.
“They tried it voluntarily,” said Jacco. “Some of them reported that they were excited to try, and some of them said that they felt some level of peer pressure.”
The assessment arises from one-on-one interviews with 11 of the children involved to try to get to the bottom of what happened and what to do about it, according to Jacco.
The sauce, Da’Bomb Beyond Insanity, was first brought to the school in December during a Christmas party. According to KEC, the student who brought it applied it to their own food, eliciting the curiosity of their peers. The teacher initially allowed the sauce to be sampled by other students but insisted it be put away after realizing it was not an ordinary hot sauce.
The same student was using Da’Bomb on their food in the school’s cafeteria on Monday when it again caught the interest of other students, who began tasting and sharing it, precipitating the adverse reactions that prompted staff to call for an ambulance before alerting parents.
“When I got the call… and she said the ambulance had to be called and he was being monitored by EMTs, I panicked,” said the mother of one of the children affected. “My first thought was ‘how can this be happening?’ I sent him there and he’s supposed to be safe.”
Despite KEC’s belief that the incident should not be construed as bullying, the mother reached by The Eastern Door does not see peer pressure as a wholly separate phenomenon.
“Personally, I feel that in the bigger picture, the children who were affected have or have had traumatic experiences with bullying at the school and felt peer pressured to comply with the activity in front of the other kids for fear of being ostracized or targeted,” she said.
She would like to see the implementation of specialized training for staff, new policies and emergency procedures related to food, an increase in the number of staff present to monitor the children, and peer pressure workshops that could prepare children to deal with difficult situations they may endure or observe.
“These children are our future generation, and we have the opportunity to break cycles of violence and trauma now, with them, at their most vulnerable and malleable season in life,” said the mother.
It was not only the parents of impacted kids who have expressed dismay.
“If my son came home and told me someone was peer pressuring him to try something really hot, I’d be livid,” said Kahentiióstha Cross, whose child attends Kateri School.
Cross is one of millions of viewers of the YouTube show Hot Ones, which features celebrity guests struggling their way through an increasingly hot array of sauces, including the one sampled by Kahnawake schoolchildren.
“I don’t think kids should be trying this sauce,” she said. She believes adults need to be held responsible for the situation that played out at Karonhianónhnha Tsi Ionterihwaienstáhkhwa.
“I understand that it’s hard if there is not enough manpower to keep an eye on all these kids, but even as a parent, checking your child’s school bag every morning before they go is always an option as well,” said Cross.
KEC administrators are emphasizing that the incident should be seen as a learning experience and are dismissing calls for retribution that have arisen on social media.
“We’re trying to come out from the impacts of Indian day school, residential schools, and the punitive approach,” said Robin Delaronde, director of education at KEC. “We are trying to work towards coming out of that and working with our families, working with the children when mistakes are made.”
As there was no finding of malicious intent, the child who brought the hot sauce to school will not be expelled or suspended, but less severe consequences may be considered appropriate given the result. Delaronde stressed the need to look at it from the child’s perspective and be empathetic toward them, however.
KEC would not confirm whether disciplinary action would be taken against the teacher who allowed the sauce to be sampled in December, saying it is an HR matter. Delaronde defended the teacher’s judgment at the Christmas party, however, describing their response as vigilant upon realizing the potency of the hot sauce.
“The school, they are looking at it as that opportunity to take this really unfortunate circumstance and make it into a learning experience for all students in school,” Delaronde said.
“From a whole school perspective, it’s about choices,” she said. “As young children, you’re going to be presented with so many experiences people are going to bring to you, and this is what we saw.” She sees this as an opportunity to teach the importance of showing resolve in the face of peer pressure, a skill particularly important as children prepare to enter their teenage years.
The school is planning bullying and peer pressure units to educate students. A safe school policy is in progress and a safe school committee will soon be meeting monthly.
“We are going to be addressing this seriously, our administration, with the parents and children,” said Delaronde, adding she has full confidence in the administration to deal with these kinds of situations as they arise.
Da’Bomb Beyond Insanity is rated at 135,600 Scoville units, a measurement to gauge the spiciness of a sauce or pepper. This compares to 450 for Frank’s Red Hot and 2,500-5,000 for Tabasco. A jalapeno comes in between 2,000 and 8,000.
“Really, it’s about parental supervision when it comes to a product like this,” said Mike Armstrong, business development executive for Spicin Foods, which produces Da’Bomb.
Despite how the sauce is used on Hot Ones, added directly to chicken wings, Beyond Insanity is intended to impart heat to large pots of chilli or vats of stew, not eaten directly, according to Armstrong.
However, Beyond Insanity is far from the hottest sauce offered by the company. One of its sauces provides heat in excess of seven million Scoville units.
“The risk takers and the thrill seekers, they’re out there, and they want to try the hotter the sauce, the better the sauce,” he said.
The company’s more extreme sauces require a waiver to be signed and are sold in a locked box. Beyond Insanity is not among them, however, according to Armstrong.
Local Journalism Initiative reporter
Marcus is managing editor of The Eastern Door, where he has been reporting since 2021 on issues that matter to Kahnawake and Kanesatake. He was previously editor-in-chief of The Link and a contributing editor at Our Canada magazine.