Iran: School Girls Continue to Face Chemical Attacks, Officials Refuse to Provide Security
Authorities Threaten Students, Families and Teachers While Refusing to Provide Transparent Investigations
School Girls and Staff Describe Being Forced to Stay in Affected Buildings While Authorities Dismiss Concerns
April 24, 2023 – Five months after the first report of a chemical attack on a girls’ school in Iran, students across the country are continuing to report chemical odors in their classrooms and symptoms associated with chemical inhalation, including respiratory and gastrointestinal problems, fainting, and eye irritation.
“What we know at this time is that since November 2022, schoolgirls all over the country have been reporting extremely concerning symptoms leading to many hospitalizations, that state security forces have threatened parents and teachers not to talk publicly about the cases, and that Iranian authorities have refused to allow independent experts to investigate,” said Hadi Ghaemi, executive director of the Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI).
“In the absence of an accountable government that will provide facts and security, Iranian schoolgirls urgently need unhindered, transparent investigations by independent experts from the World Health Organization, the United Nations Children’s Fund, and the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization to address these attacks,” Ghaemi said.
“This is not only a public health issue, it’s also about access to education for girls in a country where women and girls are treated as second-class citizens because of their gender,” he added.
Thousands of girls from predominantly public elementary, middle, and high schools around the country have fallen ill after smelling chemical odors in their classrooms, with hundreds being hospitalized since late November 2022.
In March 2023, 20 Iranian human rights lawyers, including prominent lawyers based inside the country, published an open letter urgently calling for an independent, joint committee—comprised of experts from the world’s top public health, children’s rights, and education-focused UN agencies—to immediately investigate the attacks.
“[Given] …the necessity of transparent accountability, we ask you to use all available tools in your mandate to ensure that these incidents are immediately and transparently investigated in accordance with international standards and so that the perpetrators are identified and held accountable under the law,” wrote the lawyers.
UN Experts Link Attacks on Schoolgirls to Their Participation in Nationwide Protests
While state media has been allowed to publish some reports of the chemical poisonings at schools, they have also been required to include Iranian authorities’ comments stating that the girls’ symptoms are due to “poor health” or “stress,” or that they’re merely playing “pranks” (read more about Iranian officials’ dismissive comments in a dedicated section below).
At least one woman was arrested in the capital of Tehran in April 2023 for publishing videos of affected school girls on social media, according to local media.
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Authorities in the city of Qom also arrested journalist Ali Pourtabatabaei in March 2023 for reporting on the poisonings, in an arrest that the UN condemned as “further evidence of a pattern by Iran authorities to silence all who try to report on or demand accountability for human rights violations.”
UN human rights experts have also expressed concern about the sequencing of the attacks, which began only a few weeks after nationwide protests following 22-year-old Jina Mahsa Amini’s death in state custody following her arrest for her hijab, and in which large numbers of schoolgirls across the country participated in vocally.
“We fear that [these attacks] are orchestrated to punish girls for their involvement in the movement – Women, Life, Freedom, and for expressing their opposition to mandatory hijab and voicing their demands for equality,” said the UN experts.
Students and Teachers Forced to Stay Inside Schools During Attacks, No Security Provided
In interviews conducted by CHRI with affected students and teachers, many said they were initially all forced to stay inside the school after students started to fall ill from a suspected chemical attack.
Both teachers and students also confirmed that Iranian authorities had not provided any resources for schools to monitor school buildings and that students, teachers and students’ families had been threatened not to talk publicly about the cases.
“On April 17, 2023, around 9:30 in the morning, they gassed our school,” a teacher in Iran told CHRI in an interview.
“After the situation calmed down a bit, the school authorities apologized several times to the teachers and colleagues for the stress caused, but mostly they tried to make us believe that the gas attack was just a rumor; this was while I myself felt dizzy and nauseous after inhaling the gas and felt unwell,” said the teacher.
“But the situation was not taken seriously at all. They kept saying it wasn’t an attack. Even after the worried parents confronted the school staff and the children were transferred to medical centers, the police and security forces came to the school and again insisted that it was mischief carried out by the students,” added the teacher.
“They also said that classes should continue as usual,” the teacher said. “There wasn’t even a meeting to discuss the situation but there were individual conversations with some of the parents.”
Students, Teachers Describe Chemical Attacks While Authorities Dismiss Their Reports
In interviews conducted by CHRI, both students and teachers who were at the sites of reported chemical attacks described chemical odors (smelled by both students and teachers) as well as experiencing symptoms associated with chemical poisonings. To protect the security of the interviewees, who face retribution by state forces for speaking out about the attacks, their names and exact locations have been withheld.
In all the cases, both the students and teachers were forced to stay inside the building after the attack was reported and witnessed authorities downplaying the attacks as well as accusing students of “lying.”
“After the situation calmed down a bit, the school authorities apologized several times to the teachers and colleagues for the stress caused, but mostly tried to make us believe that the gas attack was just a rumor. This is while I felt dizzy and nauseous after inhaling the gas and felt unwell,” said one teacher in Tehran.
Due to the Iranian government’s refusal to transparently investigate the attacks, rumors have been spreading by Iranians speculating about the source of the attacks, with some students and parents suggesting that some teachers and school administrators participated in them.
Yet many teachers have themselves demanded access to video footage at the school to identify perpetrators of the attacks—calls that have gone ignored by the authorities.
“Parents of the students have the impression that some teachers are complicit in these acts,” said the teacher in Tehran. “We have repeatedly demanded the perpetrators be identified through the school’s CCTV cameras and reported to the judiciary.”
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School Girls Speak Out
“Negarin,” 16, a student at Tolouie Public School for girls in Shahinshahr, Isfahan province, is one of dozens of students in at least 12 schools that reported chemical attacks in the city on one day, April 11, 2023.
She told CHRI: “I thought the behavior of our school administrator was different that morning. When we were standing in line [in the courtyard], he told us, ‘You are grown-up girls. Stop playing pranks and being naughty. I don’t want to hear about you bringing these games played in other schools to our school.’ At the time, I asked my friends if students in other schools had poisoned each other? I never heard from anyone about students pulling such pranks.”
According to Negarin, the school’s first bell rang a few minutes early that day, “We had a math class, and towards the end of the class period, I smelled a strange odor similar to the odor of an inflated plastic balloon. I thought I was imagining it, but suddenly the bell rang early, and everyone was told to go out into the yard.”
“Then, the administrator and the supervisor were telling us to wet our masks and put them on our faces. I’ve got respiratory and allergy problems, so my eyes were really burning, and I was breathing hard. I fell to the ground. Our administrator said, ‘You’ve always been naughty and are still carrying on.’ She didn’t take the incident seriously at all.”
“One of my friends went to get her phone from the school office, and since they wouldn’t let us call our families, we thought about escaping, but the school door was locked. I felt very sick, and when the administrator and supervisor saw my condition and a few other kids getting worse, they allowed our families to come inside the school and called an ambulance.”
Negarin added that during the attack, the school administrator and supervisors were all wearing masks and speculated that this was the reason why only students reported symptoms including eye irritation, shortness of breath, and nausea that day.
A 16-year-old student from Shahinshahr also told CHRI that after the attack on her school, students were terrified of going back into classrooms.
“The school staff said everything would be as before. Classes would not be canceled or be held online. No one was allowed to be absent. We all go to school trembling with fear,” she said.
After the April 12 attacks in Shahinshahr, at least 170 students were taken to Goldis Hospital with poisoning symptoms, reported the state-affiliated Iranian Students News Agency (ISNA).
A 15-year-old ninth grader, who was at the site of a reported chemical attack in Abadan, Khuzestan province, on March 5, 2023, said:
“That day, we were sitting in the classroom when suddenly a rose-like smell filled the air and in a short time covered the whole classroom. It was like rosewater mixed with bleach. Teachers were shouting and telling us to cover our noses with our masks. Although we were all having trouble breathing, many teachers did not allow the students to leave the classroom, but some of the kids went into the yard anyway. Three or four of my classmates also felt sick and spent a few days in the hospital.”
Teachers’ Requests for Cameras, Security Ignored
On the growing sense of insecurity caused by authorities’ refusal to provide resources or information to teachers and students, a teacher in Karaj told CHRI in April 2023:
“On the day of the attack we were all kept inside the high school building until the end of the shift and then when it was over they told us to go home. There was no security guard, no police, not even a briefing to help us and the students prepare for these types of attacks if they were to happen again. Classes were held as usual after the incident. On that same day, the education officials of District 4 constantly downplayed the incident and treated us as if we were lying.”
This teacher said she wished that the authorities would install 24-hour cameras at schools to protect teachers and students: “We’re all at risk, both teachers and students. We need a safe environment in schools, but instead, we are threatened by the authorities not to talk about the attacks on schools, and if we do talk, we’re quickly summoned by security forces.”
Another teacher, who shared a similar account and works at Imam Sadegh School in District 4 of Karaj, Alborz province said students and school staff were hospitalized.
“On Tuesday, April 11, around 2 in the afternoon, a chemical attack took place at our school. Many students, along with the administrator and one of our colleagues, were hospitalized with severe poisoning symptoms.”
“A smell similar to poison filled the air and caused eye irritation, nasal discharge, and shortness of breath, with some experiencing mild symptoms and others more severe ones. The children also had serious respiratory problems, eye and skin irritation, and numbness in their hands and feet. Despite all this, and even though the administrator was also in bad shape, they kept trying to act as if nothing had happened. Everything was blamed on stress and student pranks.”
Asked about whether a forensic team was sent to the school to investigate, this teacher said:
“There was no investigation at all. They only sent an ambulance and two relief workers because the students were unwell, and all they had with them were oxygen and blood pressure instruments and a respiratory spray. No one answered our questions about how it happened, nor was any action taken to identify the cause.”
A teacher at a high school in Tehran described events at her school on April 17, 2023, as well as the authorities’ refusal to take the attack seriously.
“On April 17, 2023, around 9:30 in the morning, they gassed our school. After the situation calmed down a bit, the school authorities apologized several times to the teachers and colleagues for the stress caused, but mostly they tried to make us believe that the gas attack was just a rumor. This is while I myself felt dizzy and nauseous after inhaling the gas and felt unwell. But the situation was not taken seriously at all.”
“They kept saying it wasn’t an attack. Even after the worried parents confronted the school staff and the children were transferred to medical centers, the police and security forces came to the school and again insisted that it was mischief carried out by the students. They also said that classes should continue as usual. There wasn’t even a meeting to discuss the situation but there were individual conversations with some of the parents.”
The high school teacher added that the chemical smell was very strong and that many students and colleagues were coughing and had watery eyes. Only one emergency responder arrived by motorcycle to help a school with at least 500 students.
“Parents of the students have the impression that some teachers are complicit in these acts,” added the teacher. “[But] we have repeatedly demanded the perpetrators be identified through the school’s CCTV cameras and reported to the judiciary.”
On March 4, there were reports of a chemical attack on several schools in Bojnourd, the capital of North Khorasan province. One of the teachers working at one of these schools told CHRI:
“Students smelled the scent of rotten oranges, and one of them vomited. From the very first moment and after the transfer of the sick student to the hospital, security agents arrived to calm the parents and some of them went to the hospital. Since it was the end of the [Iranian] year, after the incident, the children mostly did not come back to school. The schools were practically closed, but we the teachers were still showing up at the school.”
“During the poisoning attack on our school, one of our colleagues was seriously affected and is still struggling in the aftermath of this incident. This teacher’s hands and feet have become weak and numb, and yet the issue has not been taken seriously, and no effective action has been taken to ensure the security of teachers and students. The whole story of the chemical attack was denied, and the issue was attributed to student pranks.”
Emphasizing the need for monitoring systems in schools to identify the perpetrators of these attacks, she added: “It’s very easy to enter and exit the school unsupervised. As people working in the school, we don’t feel safe for ourselves or our students because no effective action has been taken to solve the problem and establish security.”
Attacks Reported Since November 2022, Latest Wave after Iranian New Year Holiday
Chemical attacks were first reported in the city of Qom on November 30, 2022, and have since spread to provinces all over the country, sometimes repeatedly at the same schools. For example, on April 18, the Baharan and Meraaj schools in Ardabil were struck for the fourth time since the attacks began.
The latest wave of reported chemical attacks on girls’ schools struck a day after the end of the Iranian new year holidays, on April 3, affecting at least 98 schools, according to research by CHRI, in the cities of Tehran, Eslamshahr and Pardis (Tehran province), Karaj (Alborz province), Qazvin (Qazvin province), Isfahan and Shahinshahr (Isfahan province), Dezful, Haftgel (Khuzestan province), Ardabil (Ardabil province), Oroumiyeh, Mahabad, Piranshahr, Naghadeh, Khoy (West Azerbaijan province), Tabriz (East Azerbaijan province), Sanandaj, Saqqez, Divandareh, Kamyaran (Kurdistan province), as well as the cities of Kermanshah, Harsin, and Gilan-e Gharb in Kermanshah province.
Most of the attacks were reported at girls’ high schools. However, there were attacks on at least one boys’ high school in Mahabad, on April 11, and a boy’s middle school in Saqqez, on April 18.
On April 9, in the city of Saqqez, where there were major street protests after the death in state custody of local resident Jina Mahsa Amini in September 2022, chemical attacks were reported by six girls’ schools: Taleghani, Somayeh, Meraj, Bent al-Hoda Sadr, Esteghlal, and Esmat Bakhsh Zarrineh.
More than 100 students were sent to hospitals, 24 of them with severe symptoms. State security forces also clashed with angry families, which the authorities responded to by firing tear gas.
At least three teenagers have been arrested in Larestan, Fars province, on charges of involvement in the attacks, however, the authorities have provided scant details about their cases and no evidence has been publicized, while the attacks have continued.
The teenagers have been blocked from receiving visitors and calling their families. The teenagers, Setayesh Darougheh (16), Setayesh Amiri (17), and Erfaneh Honar (19) have been in detention for more than 40 days and are held in the quarantine ward of Adelabad Prison in Shiraz.
These arrests, apart from their concerning opacity, contradict Iranian authorities’ claims that there is no evidence of chemical attacks and that the students have been faking their symptoms.
Authorities Blame Students for Attacks
Although Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and President Ebrahim Raisi initially condemned the attacks and promised to punish the perpetrators, more recently Iranian officials have made contradictory statements downplaying the attacks. This includes noting that only “10 percent” of reported symptoms were real while others were either due to “poor health,” “anxiety and stress” or students attacking themselves.
On April 14, Health Minister Bahram Eynollahi stated: “A scientific committee was formed consisting of the best professors in the country to investigate the situation of the students. Since there was no solid evidence of student poisonings, the main cause of the students’ illness was mainly due to their poor health. Our conclusion shows that in over 90 percent of cases, no poisoning or toxicity was observed, and there is no problem. The illness was mostly caused by anxiety and stress. Of course, in a small percentage of cases, there were pranks that made some students sick. This was also the overall conclusion of the Interior Ministry.”
On March 28, Education Minister Yousef Nouri said: “Recent incidents (student poisonings) had an initial source, but it was misrepresented and then became much worse. Some of the reports may have come from unofficial domestic sources, even including some of the official and domestic media. The enemy does what an enemy does, riding this wave and making parents very worried. We were also very concerned for parents, but the incidents were not so bad as to make us shut down the schools.”
The Fars news agency, which is affiliated with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), meanwhile claimed that “extensive investigations by the relevant agencies” show that “more than 90%” of chemical attacks in schools “were carried out internally by students.” It also claimed that the reason for the students getting sick was “80% due to feigning and 20% due to delirium.”
CHRI urges the World Health Organization, the United Nations Children’s Fund, and the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization to call forcefully upon the authorities in Iran to fulfill their legal responsibility to protect the country’s students by immediately working with UN experts to undertake a thorough, independent, and transparent investigation into the source of the attacks, and to work with local authorities to provide effective security at all schools.
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