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The Looting of Our Schools : Burglary, Vandalism Toll in '92: $6.5 Million

June 27, 1993|DIANE SEO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

JoAnn Eriksson said the first thing that came to mind when she walked into her classroom and saw the destruction left behind by vandals was: "This was the work of animals."

The special-education teacher at Normandie Avenue Elementary School said vandals ripped apart a child-size wheelchair and poured glue on it and on a pile of toys, games and report cards.

Other teachers at the school, which has been broken into 35 times since April, 1992, say vandals have sprayed their rooms with fire extinguishers, cut fan cords, ripped up books and maps, scribbled profanity on walls and walked away with $40,000 worth of goods. Some teachers even have found human excrement in their rooms.

"What's so hard to understand is the meanness of it all," teacher Kim Scherieble said. "People just don't have respect for anything anymore, and it's sad when it happens to children."

Although the crime spree at Normandie Avenue Elementary in South-Central is a far worse case than usual, vandals and burglars break into a Los Angeles school almost nightly--sometimes to steal expensive equipment, other times to vandalize or destroy property. Ironically, district officials say, most of the perpetrators are youngsters.

In 1992, burglars broke into Los Angeles Unified school campuses 2,497 times--stealing almost $2 million in equipment and supplies. Vandals struck 3,107 times, causing $4.5 million in damage.

Combined, that loss is equivalent to the purchase price of a fleet of 65 top-of-the-line school buses.

The district, which is self-insured, used to tap into a special fund to replace stolen or lost items. But the fund was discontinued during the 1991-92 school year because of budget cuts.

As a result, most schools are not replacing missing, broken or stolen items. And although the district's maintenance crews are sent out to repair broken windows or paint over graffiti, workers have trouble keeping up with the damage.

"How would you like to come to your office, see everything turned upside down, and not be able to get anything replaced--especially after you spent your own money to buy the supplies?" said Michael Popovac, a teacher at Normandie Avenue School. "There's a real clear sentiment among teachers that the district should be taking care of this."

What's most frustrating about these multimillion-dollar problems, school officials say, is that there is little they can do to prevent them. Only about half of the 800 campuses in the district are fully alarmed, and the district can't afford to beef up security, said Larry Hutchens, the school district's deputy police chief.

Only one of the three buildings at Normandie Avenue School, for instance, has an alarm system. A security fence surrounds the school, but it does little to deter vandals and burglars.

"The booster club is trying to raise money for an alarm system," principal Charles Proctor said. "But for now, all we can do is store our computers and equipment or take them home."

Schools appear to be a popular target of vandals and burglars, partly because of the relative ease of entry and the availability of portable and easily sold items such as computers, videocassette recorders and televisions, police said. Oftentimes, vandals enter when schools are dark and simply break a window, lock or door to gain entry into classrooms, school officials say.

"We're trying to do a number of things to make schools difficult to break into," Hutchens said. "We're making sure all keys are accounted for, we're responding to incidents as quickly as we can, and we're encouraging principals to increase awareness about the problem in their communities."

The district employs 296 of its own police officers--most of whom work during school hours. District police officials declined to say how many officers work overnight and on weekends, fearing that such information might encourage criminals. But principals said only a few officers work the off-hour shifts, and they have hundreds of schools to patrol.

"Obviously, if the district were not in the financial shape it's in, we would move to have the police force expanded," said Herbert Graham, the district's director of police and administrative services. "But since we are having budget problems, we have to do the best with what we have."

School police say the break-ins are not limited to schools in high-crime areas. Vandals strike buildings throughout the district. But administrators at several Central Los Angeles schools say their problems have escalated in recent years.

About two years ago, vandals broke into Wilshire Crest Elementary School over Memorial Day weekend and turned on an emergency water hose.

"It ran the whole three-day weekend and destroyed all of the books in the library," principal Beverly Tietjen said. "We ordered $50,000 of new books, but with the budget cuts, we had to cancel the order."

Today, the library's shelves are still empty.

And crime continues to plague the school.

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