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L.A. Schools Besieged by Computer Burglaries

Crime: Rise in thefts, vandalism costs millions of dollars. Problem is less acute in O.C., where security is better.

June 13, 1996|JULIE TAMAKI and KATE FOLMAR | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

LOS ANGELES — A relentless string of burglaries is draining the Los Angeles Unified School District of some of its costliest computer equipment and racking up millions of dollars in damage, perplexing district officials who lack funds to bolster security or replace lost goods.

More than $16 million has been lost to burglars and vandals in less than three years and the number grows every day, with the district suffering about 3,000 break-ins a year.

Thieves and vandals are wreaking havoc not only in Los Angeles but regionwide, breaking the hearts of countless schoolchildren and the spirit of struggling teachers and administrators who have had to cancel computer classes because the equipment is gone.

"This has been absolutely devastating [to] our kids," said Jill Fager, the principal of Coldwater Canyon Elementary School, which has been struck three times in less than a year. "They can't understand why somebody would want to steal from them."

Most of the burglaries occur at night and during weekends and vacations when campuses are vacant for long periods of time. During the recent Memorial Day weekend, 44 district buildings were burglarized, prompting school police to hold a news conference to urge residents to keep an eye on their neighborhood schools and call authorities if they see anything suspicious.

Orange County schools also have their share of burglaries and vandalism, but school officials say the problem is not severe. Many districts credit alarm systems with holding down the problem, which accounted for minimal losses.

"We've had break-ins and some vandalism, but nothing out of the ordinary," said Robert Barker, school police chief at the Santa Ana Unified School District, the county's largest district. "It hasn't been anything that I would consider excessive or abnormal."

Barker said district police patrol 24 hours a day.

The Garden Grove Unified School District, the county's second largest district, had 33 incidents of burglary or other break-ins this past school year, six of which involved the removal of computer equipment, said Alan Trudell, spokesman for the district. The total loss for the district's 64 campuses is estimated at from $20,000 to $25,000.

"If you characterize the amount lost, it doesn't seem like much," Trudell said. "But when you lose one computer, it affects the education of several students. Students pay the price and taxpayers pay the price."

Police say many burglaries are committed by youngsters who prowl a campus until they find a door ajar, then take advantage of it. Brazen thieves also gain entry by dismantling doors, jimmying locks and breaking windows.

Once inside, they ransack classrooms looking for televisions, computers and VCRs, which are resold for profit or kept for personal use. Other times, vandals destroy property by spraying fire extinguishers in offices, smashing computers and copy machines, and defecating in buildings. Some have even killed classroom pets.

The problem is compounded by the fact that the cash-strapped district has stopped insuring itself against vandalism and burglary losses. As a result, it can take weeks or months for the schools to replace stolen or damaged equipment and make repairs. And some losses are never recouped.

Such was the case at the Coldwater Canyon school in Studio City, which lost 20 computers and printers valued at $60,000 to thieves in three separate burglaries that began in November. That forced school administrators to cancel computer classes, robbing students of the chance to improve their word processing skills and to learn to use the Internet.

Fager said one burglary occurred within hours of the equipment's arrival. As a precaution, she said, she has inscribed and painted the school's name on the few remaining computers.

Since the burglaries, Coldwater Canyon students have launched a candy sale to raise money to replace the stolen equipment, which was purchased with special school improvement funds.

"When you read about all the other schools that are suffering like we are, you just begin to wonder what is going on," Fager said. "It is so sad for our children."

Authorities say the culprits include hardened gang members and drug users in search of booty to sell for drug money, otherwise law-abiding youngsters in search of thrills, and students with grudges.

A 17-year-old boy with a history of truancy was so angry at being expelled from Hoover High School in Glendale that he stole computers, left satanic marks on classroom walls and finally set the school on fire, causing $2.9 million in damage.

But some thefts are inside jobs. Last year, authorities in Ventura County arrested a custodian at a Moorpark middle school on suspicion of stealing three computers and two printers valued at $6,500 from the Moorpark Unified School District.

While vandals and burglars have long preyed on classrooms, L.A. district officials say the financial losses have increased over the years as schools have expanded their stock of pricey computer equipment.

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