Schools in city hit by rash of fires

138 have been set during school year

officials blame students

Most called `nuisances'

May 04, 2004|By Laurie Willis | Laurie Willis,SUN STAFF

When firefighters arrived at Edmondson-Westside High School yesterday morning, they found an all-too-familiar scene: a small fire that had been intentionally set, perhaps by a student hoping to get out of class.

The fire, which was confined to a stack of papers in an unoccupied second-floor classroom, had been extinguished by a teacher by the time firefighters arrived, said Capt. Raymond O'Brocki of the Baltimore Fire Department.

There were no injuries.

Earlier in the day, firefighters had rushed to Calverton Middle School, where another small blaze disrupted classes temporarily, said Inspector Derrick Lamont Ready of the department's arson task force/fire investigation bureau.

`Kids, absolutely'

"There have been a rash of these lately, since the warm weather began," O'Brocki said. "They've been at different city schools at the elementary, middle and high school levels. It's been kids, absolutely, in every one of them. I don't know if it's spring fever, testing or they're just trying to get out of class in general."

Since September, Ready said, 138 fires have been set at Baltimore schools, resulting in three smoke-related injuries, usually to victims with asthma.

Authorities have made 107 arrests, and most of the perpetrators have been juveniles, Ready said. Suspension is usually the punishment, said Paul Benson, interim chief of the Baltimore City School Police.

`Malicious burnings'

Benson categorized the fires as "malicious burnings" rather than arsons because the law requires structural damage for a fire to be categorized as arson. Nonetheless, Benson said, he and schools administrators are working with fire officials to reduce the number of fires being set because they're disruptive, cause thousands of dollars in damage and could result in tragedy.

"There has been no loss of life or serious injury, but any fire is a problem, period," Benson said. "We are constructively working with the Baltimore City Fire Department to try to thwart this type of activity."

Among the steps being taken are ensuring that lockers remain locked so that notebooks, coats and other items aren't available as fuel for a fire, Benson said.

"Most of the fires are nuisance fires -- trash can fires, or stacks of paper that have been set on fire, or paper dispensers," Benson said. "You cannot leave paper readily exposed where people can set it on fire. As we patrol, we're looking for these things that could be potential for fire, including excessive trash in waste cans."

Schools hit repeatedly

Ready and Benson said the same schools are being targeted in most cases. Yesterday's fire was not the first one to be set at Edmondson this school year, Ready said.

Benson said Walbrook Academy and Southwestern High School also are among the schools where numerous fires have been set.

Ready said he and other fire officials talk to students about the dangers of fires and patrol hallways as a deterrent.

"The kids are getting tired of having their school day disrupted," Ready said. "They want to be safe, and we want to keep them safe."

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