Fire destroys play area for autistic children Arson at Dundalk school disgusts parents, others

July 17, 1998|By Jay Apperson | Jay Apperson,SUN STAFF

It was a place for children with serious mental disabilities to have fun, a safe setting for autistic preschoolers to learn to climb and slide.

Yesterday, parents, government officials and business leaders pronounced their disgust that someone set fire to the new playground at Dundalk's Bear Creek Elementary School on Tuesday night. They vowed to rebuild it.

"I couldn't believe someone would do something like this," said Dawn Andresen, mother of two autistic girls who are in the special program at Bear Creek. "Why? Why would someone do this?"

The playground, three years in the making, started as a corral of sorts, where autistic youngsters bounced and rolled on large balls within a chain-link fence. Autistic children are prone to run off without warning, and the fence keeps them from heading toward the dangers of the nearby creek.

In May, the county school system built a play structure for about $19,000. But someone poured flammable liquid on it Tuesday night and set it afire, police said. Yesterday, the blue plastic sliding boards were gone, melted into a bedding of scorched wood chips. All that was left was a metal platform wreathed in yellow police-line tape.

Police said yesterday that they knew of suspects in the arson, but had made no arrests. While investigators worked the case, county school and recreation officials said they hope to have the playground refitted in time for the start of school.

They said they might rebuild it in a more visible spot to deter vandalism.

Edwin F. Hale Sr., chairman of First Mariner Bank, went to the school yesterday to pledge money to help make that happen. School officials said the deductible on the school's insurance policy is $10,000. Hale said his bank would cover it.

"It's just a shame this has to happen in a neighborhood like this," said Hale, a native of the area.

Fred Dvorak, an assistant principal at Bear Creek Elementary, said he has seen teen-agers hanging out near the school. He said they sometimes climb onto the roof and leave liquor bottles and graffiti behind.

Still, he was stunned that someone would destroy such a source of joy for young children. The playground, he said, worked well. With no fence, the school would have to assign nearly one adult to each autistic child to provide proper supervision, he said.

Autism is a neurological disorder that hinders a child's ability to reason, communicate and interact with others. Researchers do not know its cause.

The autism program at Bear Creek has 16 students in two classes, said Karen Schafer, director of elementary education for the county schools' southeast area. She said one school in each area of the county is the site of a similar program, but none has the kind of playground equipment that Bear Creek had.

"This was special," she said.

The PTA at Bear Creek began raising money for the playground about three years ago, but the county stepped in and built it.

Andresen, the mother with autistic children, said the playground was a favorite place for her girls, and a place for them to learn. She had triplets three years ago, and two of the girls are autistic.

"Every day, we'd come down here," she said. "They see the other kids climb up the steps and go down the slide, and they follow them."

Even small children couldn't hide their anger at the fire.

Stephanie Olah, 7, a second-grader at the school, stood astride her new five-speed bicycle and said, "They should put the people in jail, if they find them, for three or four years."

Pub Date: 7/17/98

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