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Compton School Arson Damages Both Morale, Property

April 04, 1985|DARYL KELLEY | Times Staff Writer

COMPTON — For the second time in 13 months, students and teachers arrived at Compton High School last week to find some classrooms leveled by arson.

"I just looked at it, and it brought tears to my eyes," said Teresa Wooden, a teacher at the school for 21 years. "I mentioned to (Principal Henry) Jennings that maybe we should just close it (the school) down."

Eleventh-grader Percy Sullivan, whose math classroom was destroyed by the fire, remembered that "seeing just ashes was a terrible sight. I was thinking, 'How could they have done something like this? What could have been running through their mind?'

"They might have been trying to get back at a teacher or the principal or they might just have been those kind of people who ain't goin' nowhere in life and don't want you goin' nowhere either."

Whatever the arsonist's motives, the school district says it will cost at least $500,000 to replace the six freshly painted mathematics classrooms, which stood by themselves in an L-shape. They burned quickly and crumbled shortly after midnight on March 26.

That isn't half the damage, Principal Jennings said Friday.

"I'll tell you, we're really hurting," said the lanky administrator, principal for two years and vice principal for four years. "The students are saying, 'Mr. Jennings, why are they doing this to our school? How can we get the kind of education we're struggling to get if they're going to burn down our campus?' And the teachers are saying, 'Gee whiz, will it be my area next?' "

Prodded by that fire and a spate of others at district schools, the board of trustees last week offered rewards of up to $5,000 for information leading to the arrest and conviction of those who set fire to school property.

Major fires will warrant the $5,000 reward, said Supt. Ted Kimbrough. "They're stealing children's educations, and it must stop," he said.

As a district, Compton probably has been victimized by arsonists more than any other in Los Angeles County, figures indicate. Together, all of the county's public schools have lost an average of $2.3 million a year to fire in the last five years. Compton, with just 27,000, or 2.1% of the county's students, has had about $950,000 in losses from 11 fires in the last 13 months. The total losses and number of fires are the greatest for any similar period in Compton in the last decade.

Compton High has been the hardest hit, with nine math and special education classrooms destroyed in three fires and an industrial arts shop gutted twice since February, 1984--a total loss of $760,000. A Washington Elementary School classroom also was burned two months ago, a loss of $150,000.

Other arson attempts, including a Molotov cocktail through a Compton High classroom window two weekends ago, have caused little damage but considerable worry, said district officials.

Despite insurance coverage, the fires will cost the district $293,000 out of pocket, said Associate Supt. Robert Sampieri. The insurance deductible per fire is $75,000, so the two major blazes at Compton High have cost the district $150,000. The Washington Elementary blaze will be another $75,000, Sampieri said.

In addition, the district expects its annual fire insurance premiums to about double to $200,000 by October, when its contract is renegotiated, said Sampieri. He said the increase will be due in part to a four-fold jump in fire losses in the last year.

The dollars lost to fire by the financially strapped district could have been used to set up an extensive tutorial program in basic skills at Compton's three high schools, said Supt. Kimbrough. The budget for this school year is about $93 million.

The March 26 blaze is in many ways typical of the other fires at Compton High, said district officials and fire investigators. All appear to be the work of amateurs and all have been set at night in buildings in a secluded, 75-yard-long strip that borders athletic fields on the western third of the campus. In each case, there have been no witnesses or arrests.

As is the case with most of the other Compton High fires, "there was forcible entry, and normally, professionals don't leave that type of evidence. We suspect juveniles were involved," said Fire Capt. Phillip Ewell of March 26 fire.

There is no evidence, however, that the same person was involved in all the fires, he said.

John Burton, a consultant in the Los Angeles County Office of Education, said the trend countywide is for school fires to be set by youths to camouflage theft. "These people tend to break into buildings like auto shops, and then torch them to cover their entry," he said.

The Compton district is rife with speculation about the Compton High arsons. Students suspect other students, and school officials offer their own theories.

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