High school experiences rash of arsons

11 fires have been set at Southwestern since Jan. 1

7 students arrested

March 25, 2003|By Tanika White | Tanika White,SUN STAFF

More than half of all arson fires in Baltimore schools this year have occurred in the hallways and bathrooms of Southwestern High School, disrupting class and causing headaches for the city Fire Department.

Eleven fires have been set at Southwestern since Jan. 1 -- the most recent occurring yesterday, according to Fire Department Division Chief Theodore Saunders. During the same period, the other 172 schools in the district have had seven arsons.

"It's incredible," Saunders said. "We haven't had a fire in a school other than Southwestern since March 4."

School system spokeswoman Edie House said that school officials are working with the Fire Department.

Chief Executive Officer Carmen V. Russo "is committed to getting to the bottom of the situation and to ensuring the students and staff are in a safe environment," House said.

The latest fire was set about 11 a.m. yesterday in a trash can in a fifth-floor stairwell. In addition, small fires were set inside the school eight other times this month, including four successive days last week, and twice last month.

No one has been hurt, and most of the blazes have been small, causing minimal damage. However, each fire requires Fire Department attention and is costly in terms of manpower and money, Saunders said.

Officers assigned

Since the rash of fires, Saunders has assigned three officers to work primarily on Southwestern's cases. They've arrested seven students-- three more than the total number of school-arson arrests made last school year, he said.

And, Saunders said, he fears the day when one of the small fires develops into something bigger and more destructive.

"It's more than a nuisance," Saunders said, "and it's a danger to more than just the kids that are in the school. Every time we go to investigate a fire at Southwestern, the fire protection in that area is really compromised."

Russo has asked for additional police at the school. One officer was added yesterday, House said, and two more should be patrolling at Southwestern by the end of the week.

Added distraction

Saunders said he didn't know what was causing the disproportionate number of fires at Southwestern.

"They could be just trying to disrupt the school day for some reason," he said. "But it's definitely a sign of some underlying problems."

The school system and the Fire Department are offering rewards for tips leading to the arrest of an arsonist. The arson tip hot line is 410-685-8477.

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