Editorial Notebook: When a playground burns, the entire community suffers

Published: Wednesday, Aug. 21, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 12A

Several hunks of twisted, melted metal and scattered patches of burned wood chips are the only evidence left of the arson that destroyed a playground at south Sacramento's John Sloat Elementary School in late July.

A day after the arson at Sloat, and a few miles to the west, a playground at Caroline Wenzel Elementary School was the target of the same high-heat vandalism.

When I saw what was left of the Sloat playground earlier last week, I thought back to my own childhood playground, a structure built by residents, including my father, in my small central Illinois community. I thought about the reaction of parents and kids when they returned to Sloat only to find an empty lot.

Incidents of playground arson are becoming more frequent in Sacramento – 18 playground fires have been recorded so far this year, already matching the total count for 2012, The Bee's Loretta Kalb and Brittany Torrez reported Aug. 9. There were no playground fires on Sacramento City Unified School District campuses last year.

For local families, these kinds of fires obliterate a centerpiece of their day-to-day routines. Many of us remember the local parks where we ran around as kids, the stage for some of our earliest and fondest memories.

Undoubtedly, administrators and teachers are concerned and maybe even confused about how to respond. Schoolyards are not designed to keep people out – how could a school anticipate such a random act?

Eric Crenshaw, a Greenhaven resident whose daughter plays soccer at Wenzel Elementary, said he was bewildered by how somebody could carry out this kind of arson without considering the group it would affect the most: the kids.

"I think it's sad really, it's a shame. The kids need a place to play," Crenshaw said.

While there may be some obvious deterrents schools can put in place – cameras and motion-triggered lighting – there are no infallible ways to prevent these crimes short of entirely sealing off the campus after closing.

At the district level, there's a hefty bill that accompanies the damage.

For the recent fires at Sloat and Wenzel, the Sacramento City Unified School District will pay out $50,000 in deductibles for the destruction of the playgrounds, said Cathy Allen, assistant superintendent for district facilities. Add to that the less tangible cost of time and effort spent by school district employees clearing the debris from the schoolyard and documenting each incident, Allen said, all during some of the district's busiest weeks of the year.

Of course, the greatest cost is borne by the neighborhoods that surround these charred playgrounds. A well-kept park that meets the needs of young and old, parents and grandparents is a vital organ for a healthy community. When that organ is injured, the entire body suffers.

Loic Hostetter, a UCLA student, is interning with The Bee's editorial board this summer. Follow him on Twitter at @LoicHostetter.

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