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Arson destroys playgrounds at two Sacramento City Unified elementary schools

Published: Friday, Aug. 9, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 1B
Last Modified: Monday, Aug. 12, 2013 - 8:22 am

Two Sacramento City Unified elementary school playgrounds have been destroyed by arson, leaving school officials scrambling to replace monkey bars and slides at two campuses before the school year begins next month.

The playground structures at John D. Sloat Elementary School in south Sacramento and Caroline Wenzel Elementary School in Greenhaven were destroyed a day apart last week in nighttime blazes, the Sacramento City Unified School District reported.

Sloat Elementary's playground structure was set afire July 31, just hours after east Sacramento residents celebrated the reopening of the McKinley Park playground. McKinley Park's playground had been torched by arson a year earlier, then rebuilt by community volunteers and donations.

On Aug. 1, the playground structure at Caroline Wenzel Elementary was set afire.

Sacramento fire officials have made no arrests and are continuing their investigation.

The structures were made of metal pipes and plastic atop ground-level wood chips.

The plastic, which melted in the fires, supports children at play without harming them during climbing or sliding, said Tracey Lopez, safety manager for the district.

The flammability of wood chips is also a trade-off, she said.

"Safety experts have said the material under these playgrounds are safer when children fall," she said.

Wenzel had 380 students at the end of the last academic year. Sloat had 310 students.

Parents were distressed at word of the fires.

"We come all the time," said Heather Coombes, who visited Wenzel on Wednesday to assess the damage.

Coombes' 7-year-old daughter, Arianna Hevron, will start second grade next month at the school. "We take the dog and play here. I never thought something would happen. I never thought somebody would burn down a school playground."

Cindy DeYoung, outgoing president of the Wenzel PTA, said she knows playground fires happen often. Still, she said she was shocked to learn about the fires.

"It's one of those things where you kind of expect it," she said. "Things are so different from when we were kids. You always hope it doesn't happen to your school. … It's just really disappointing."

District officials say they are pushing to have new playgrounds installed in time for the Sept. 3 start of the academic year or soon after.

"The intentions are to replace the playground structures as soon as possible," said Cathy Allen, assistant superintendent for district facilities. "We're moving forward as fast as we can."

The district has already removed the debris and remainders of the damaged structures.

The district is insured through the School Insurance Authority, a Sacramento-based joint powers authority that represents 36 member school districts.

The deductible for each Sacramento school district fire is $25,000, which will come from its general fund budget, said Gabe Ross, district spokesman.

Playground structures generally cost more than $70,000, he said.

Scott Williams, assistant chief at the Sacramento Fire Department, said playground fires are becoming more frequent.

Eighteen playground fires have occurred in the city this year, matching the total for all of 2012, he said.

"We're still trying to find additional information and suspects," Williams said.

Playgrounds can be a target of arson because they typically don't have night lighting, he said.

The underlying bark is also easy to ignite.

There are no easy answers to questions of motive.

"Kids go out there to smoke cigarettes or play with matches, and those types of materials are easy to get going," Williams said. "It's hard to say unless you catch a person.

"One of the things they tell us is, 'I just wanted to see how big it could get,' " Williams said. "(Or) they were angry."

Safety manager Lopez said the district has a limited number of security personnel to catch vandals or arsonists.

"We do rely on the community and the neighbors around our schools to be our eyes and ears for us and report suspicious activity when they see it," she said.

To report problems, residents can call local law enforcement and the school district's 24-hour answering service at (916) 643-7444.

Anyone with information about the school fires is asked to call the Sacramento Fire Department Arson Tip Line at (916) 808-8732 or (877) 822-8477.

Call The Bee's Loretta Kalb, (916) 321-1073. Follow her on Twitter @LorettaSacBee. Read her Report Card blog at http://blogs.sacbee.com/report-card/.

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.



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