Powder Scare Closes Graduate School of Education

J.P. Goodwin

When Elizabeth McPhee arrived at her work station, which is across from the main entrance to the Graduate College of Education, on the first floor of the Wheatley Building, she reportedly noticed a “white powder” on both the keyboard of her computer and on her chair. UMB Public Safety was notified, who in turn notified UMB Environmental Health & Environmental Safety.

“While it didn’t appear at all like something dangerous, we did notify HazMat [the Boston Fire Department’s Hazardous Materials Unit], who arrived on campus in about ten minutes,” explained Dr. J. Brian Dumser, the associate director of the Environmental Health & Safety Department.

HazMat officials reportedly agreed with Dumser’s initial assessment that the “heavy, granular type substance” did not appear to be dangerous but in the “interest of public safety” had the substance transported to the State Laboratory in Jamaica Plain for analysis. The substance was described as looking somewhat like sugar, or possibly some type of lawn fertilizer.

At that point, a decision was made to close the area until the lab results were available. “In light of the situation, University officials have decided to keep the work area closed until the lab results are back,” Chancellor Jo Ann Gora told the UMB community in a campus-wide e-mail that afternoon. The area, which consisted of a suite of offices housing Graduate College of Education employees, remained closed until approximately 12:30pm on Thursday. University employees from the area reportedly either worked in other offices or remained at home for the two days in which their offices were closed. All returned to work Friday morning.

“This is the first one that there was some indication that it was a deliberate incident,” said UMB Deputy Chief Phillip O’Donnell. He added, “It’s under investigation.” Dumser concurred with O’Donnell’s assessment, “It’s the only incident where there appears to be intent.”

McPhee, declined to discuss the incident, except to comment, “I didn’t like the way it was handled and I don’t like your newspaper.”

Dumser explained that the State lab was has been processing a large number of samples over the last few weeks, due to public concern over anthrax contamination. “The state has processed over 2,000 samples and none have been positive for anthrax,” Dumser said. “But we still have to respond very carefully.”