WOODLAND HILLS — When Gene-Paul Del Rosario started classes last fall at Pierce College, he found a great tool to help him grasp the intricate rules and structure of the English language, often difficult for deaf people.
He had one of 11 coveted seats in the Office of Disabled Students Services' computer lab in the Geography Building, which he visited nearly every day for classes designed to teach proper English to the deaf.
But, over the weekend of May 31, thieves broke into the lab and stole the best five of 11 computers specially designed to accommodate the needs of the deaf and hearing-impaired, school officials said. The computers were also the only voice-activated ones used by eight quadriplegic students on campus.
"The computer helps me a lot," Del Rosario said, when reached by telephone through an interpreter from the California Relay Service. "It helps me improve English."
Now, school officials said, Del Rosario, 19, will face a vastly different class experience when he returns to school in August for his second year.
"If we don't get replacement computers soon, it'll put a halt to our program," said Special Services director Norm Crozer. "We'll still be able to offer classes, but they will be next to nothing. We'll be back to using textbooks and regular teaching materials, and these kinds of students need something special that can't be found in regular textbooks."
The stolen computers were IBM-compatible machines with Pentium processors capable of fast program response and equipped with extra memory and software Crozer designed to teach the deaf.
The computer lab also serves hundreds of learning-disabled students annually.
The computers, valued at an estimated $10,000, were purchased last fall with a grant from the Ahmanson Foundation.
Even before the theft, program officials had already been struggling to replace a special microphone stolen in April that students used to activate a Drag and Dictate program allowing hands-free operation.
The thieves, who school officials suspect were familiar with the lab, left behind the older, slower computers not equipped with CD-ROM drives.
"They left those behind because they recognized good computers," said Miriam Gottlieb, a disabilities specialist. "And they left us with garbage. They knew what they were doing."
Pierce College President E. Bing Inocencio said replacement of the computers has become "one of our top priorities here because we don't want to neglect our disabled students. This really troubles me a lot."
He said the college will file a claim with the Los Angeles Community College District to buy new computers, but it could take months before Pierce sees the money.
Inocencio said he and a team of administrators will discuss ways to find replacements, including borrowing funds, leasing equipment or soliciting help from local businesses.
Meanwhile, Inocencio said he will work to find funds to install a security system, estimated to cost upward of $3,000, in the lab to prevent further theft. Some of the other campus computer labs already have security alarm systems, he said.