School Arson Focus of Awareness Week

Arson investigators are working to crack nine more cases, including finding out who threw a Molotov cocktail on the playground at Hawk's Rise Elementary School recently.

A Saturday morning in October, fire erupts at Raa Middle School. A student winds up under arrest, and damages and repairs now tally more than $800,000.

Paul Byrd, the executive director of facilities for Leon County schools, says, "The first $250,000 is an expense to the local taxpayers, and then again the emotional trauma to the students who attend that facility."

During this Arson Awareness Week, fire officials are calling special attention to school fires; nationwide, 14,000 of them in 2002, which is the latest year on record. Middle schools are most at risk they say, and the handiwork is most likely done by someone under 18.

Rand Napoli, director of the state fire marshal's office, says, "Half of those at least are children under the age of 18, and many of those, about a third of those, under the age of 15."

A fire at Godby High School in 2002 is one of about a dozen at Leon County schools in the past 20 years. Most you never hear about, a fire set in a trash can or on a teacher's desk, but arson investigators say beware of the line between pranks and crimes.

John Gatlin with the Tallahassee Fire Department says, "We can't brush it off as curiosity because we find that it just grows. It may start off as a leaf, but moves to a dumpster and to a school."

A juvenile fire starter program in Tallahassee has been set up to counsel kids whose "fireplay" has gotten them in trouble with the law. Twenty-seven kids have been referred since September.