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Published in Print: November 11, 1998, as Fire Power

Fire Power

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When two boys burned the high school in Cross Plains, Texas, the town was left asking why.

Cross Plains, Texas

On Sunday, Dec. 7, 1997, all the clocks in Cross Plains High School stopped at 3:30 a.m. By that time, a fire at the school was roaring out of control. A nearby portable building that housed art classes was also ablaze. A few hours and more than $1.5 million in damages later, both structures were reduced to smoking shells. As temperatures within the main building soared to an estimated 2,000 degrees, 18-inch-thick steel beams in the roof sagged, and brick walls bowed.

Investigators say it could have been worse: If the fire had burned through the roof, the entire school might have been destroyed. As it was, the proud centerpiece of this small, nondescript West Texas town was badly damaged. "Nearly everybody in town went to this high school," says Ed Duncan, who was the town's police chief at the time of the blaze. "Their trophies were destroyed, their memorabilia. A lot of these adults here suffered a loss."

Later, when investigators poked through the remains of charred desks, melted computers, and blackened test papers, they found evidence of seven separate fires. The smell of gasoline lingered in the hallways, offices, and classrooms.

Within a day, two 16-year-old Cross Plains High students were arrested and charged in connection with the fire. Soon after, an 18-year-old who had graduated from the school only months before was arrested and accused of helping the two boys.

In this dusty crossroads town of 1,060, where the Texas highlands step down to meet the rolling plains, most residents already knew the story of the fire before it appeared in the local papers. And most already knew the two boys. They played for the Cross Plains football team, the Buffaloes, and in Texas, football is king.

Both boys quickly admitted their role in the fire, and each was sentenced in late March to up to five years in a maximum-security, lock-down facility. The 18-year-old has pleaded not guilty to arson charges and is still awaiting trial.

In a school year when tales of student violence in small-town America were all too common, the Cross Plains fire was nothing more than a disturbing footnote. Forty-two people were killed in school shootings in the 1997-98 school year, a few more than the average in recent years. But the nature of the crimes was shocking, as wholesome-looking boys took up high-powered weapons and calmly mowed down their classmates in the towns of Pearl, Miss.; West Paducah, Ky.; Jonesboro, Ark.; and Springfield, Ore. ("Officials Take No Chances After Killings," June 3, 1998.)

Still, what happened in Cross Plains illustrates a phenomenon nearly as alarming as the shootings. During the months that Americans were transfixed by the tales of students killing other students, there were nearly as many stories--if not more--of children setting fire to their schools. A few days before the two students were charged in the Cross Plains fire, a 12-year-old boy was arrested for his role in an elementary school fire in northeast Dallas. And about a month later, two cheerleaders at Norwood Middle School in Cincinnati piled up papers and mops that were being used as props for a play and started a fire in their school's ornate auditorium.

These arsons were by no means an aberration. More than half of all school fires are started intentionally, according to the U.S. Fire Administration, and they account for $50 million in damage to school property annually.

Roughly 95 percent of public and private schools carry fire-protection insurance, according to Jayna Neagle, a spokeswoman for the Insurance Information Institute in New York City.

The increased insurance rates that follow an arson are a large concern, according to a report by the National School Safety Center in Westlake Village, Calif. But the NSSC 's 1995 report on arson in schools also cites several nonfinancial problems related to fires; among them are lowered morale, loss of study and work time due to injuries or canceled classes, and negative publicity related to school safety.

Each year, on average, one person dies and 80 are injured in school fires. But statistics about deaths and damage to buildings don't tell the whole story. "There are probably many more school fires than we know about," says Paul Schwartzman, a mental-health counselor in Rochester, N.Y., and a leading expert in the study and treatment of juvenile fire-setters. "Schools protect themselves. Here in upstate New York, when we started to do more intervention, it took a whole lot of trust-building before we could get administrators to call in the fire department when there was a problem."

And while arson may not take as many lives each year as school shootings, it inflicts the same kind of wounds on the psyche of a school's staff and student body. "You can't underestimate the impact of an arson," says Ronald D. Stephens, the executive director of the NSSC. "You talk with the teachers afterward, and they feel personally invaded and threatened."

It is difficult to determine who sets school fires. Arsons of any type are rarely solved--only 15 percent of arson investigations end in an arrest, according to federal statistics. And in many school fires, the arsonists are never caught. In Virginia Beach, Va., for example, authorities still have made no arrest in a September 1995 blaze that caused $7 million in damage to Princess Anne High School.

Still, some fire investigators say it's clear that students are responsible for a large percentage of school fires, big and small. Tom Minnich, the chief of the Fire Management Program at the USFA, says, "I know just from talking to investigators from around the country that many school fires are set by students themselves."

Schwartzman, one of the leaders of a Rochester program to prevent children from starting fires, says school arson appears to attract older students. Residential fires are often set by children younger than 10 who experiment with lighters or matches found in the home. As children grow older and become more mobile, however, some start fires in vacant buildings, dumpsters, garages, fields, and schools.

And far more boys than girls set fires. According to Schwartzman, research suggests that boys are responsible for 85 percent of juvenile arsons. "We see boys much more involved in conduct disorders and other aggressive behavior," he says. "Some of that is genetic, and some is socialization."

There's no one reason why young fire-setters target schools. Sometimes, youngsters set a fire as a prank or as a way to get out of a final exam. Other times, they are responding to peer pressure or simply seeking attention. "You're in the boys' bathroom, you've got a lighter in your pocket, and you're going to make a statement," Schwartzman says.

Revenge is another motive. For students who have had a run-in with a principal or teacher, starting a blaze is a particularly satisfying retaliation, says Judy Coolidge, the program coordinator for Oregon's Juvenile Fire-Setter Intervention Program. "A fire totally disrupts the routine of the schools, which is what administrators want to avoid. It's the same in schools where there are a lot of false alarms. They have the same effect."

Says Wolfgang Halbig, the director of security for schools in Seminole County, Fla., ''You've got to keep an eye on the ones who are expelled or suspended."

But safety officials and fire-prevention experts also suspect that some fires are set by children who are emotional powder kegs. "In the old days, we never thought that kids would come onto the school campus with the intent to burn it and destroy it," says Halbig, a former principal and police officer. "Kids are angry today; they're frustrated."

"In the old days, we never thought that kids would come onto the school campus with the intent to burn it and destroy it. Kids are angry today; they're frustrated."

Wolfgang Halbig,
director of security,
Seminole County, Fla. schools

Schwartzman hasn't studied school arsonists specifically, but he says chronic neglect or abuse is one of the best predictors of a child who will set fires. "There's about a fivefold increase in repeat fires in families where there's a documented history of neglect or physical or sexual abuse," he notes. Or there may be other problems at home, including a parent's alcoholism or mental illness, divorce, or criminal involvement.

Through arson, Schwartzman says, such troubled children "learn the power of fire."

Sometimes, such as in the case of the Cincinnati cheerleaders, there doesn't appear to be an explanation. On Jan. 30, at Norwood Middle School, in the heart of the relatively small, middle-income Norwood City school district in southern Ohio, a fire was started in the auditorium while the school was still brimming with extracurricular activities. It nearly burned the 86-year-old building to the ground. "The firemen told us that if the fire had gone another 10 to 15 minutes undetected, we would have lost the whole building," Principal Gerry Addison says.

Investigators ultimately focused their investigation on two girls, 12 and 13, whose eyewitness accounts of the blaze were inconsistent. "They weren't skilled at lying," the principal says. "It didn't take long."

Addison was stunned to learn the two girls were responsible. They were cheerleaders and good students who had never been in trouble before. To this day, Addison says he has no idea why the fire was set. "The thing that shocked me was that they didn't know why they did it," he says.

According to a story in The Kentucky Post, a newspaper in the border city of Covington, Ky., the 13-year-old offered a tearful apology in court: "I'm very sorry and ashamed. I never intended the fire to get that big or spread. If you let me go, I promise you'll never see me here again."

Both girls were expelled and placed under house arrest for the duration of the school year. A psychological evaluation suggested they posed no future threat. One girl left the school, but the other returned this year. Addison is hoping for the best. "She's got her friends," he says. "I see her laughing. She seems fine."

Explanations also elude educators at the Community School of Westwood, a private high school for learning-disabled students in New Jersey's Bergen County. That school was destroyed by a blaze that swept through the building on March 12, displacing 132 students. No one was hurt.

Eventually, a 17-year-old student admitted to the crime. School co-director Toby Braunstein describes the boy as an average student, with no history of difficulties or behavior problems at school. "This really wasn't a case of a child who had any arson background," he says. "It was simply a case of very poor judgment and impulsivity. He was very remorseful. This was not something he intended to do."

Cross Plains is 40 miles south of Abilene, about an hour's drive down Route 36, a narrow, two-lane country blacktop. The road cuts straight through the parched, flat landscape known as Big Country. Every few miles or so, gnarled, scrub-covered hillocks rise suddenly from the earth. Past ranches, peanut farms, and vast hay fields, there is Turkey Creek and the town that has grown up along its banks.

A flashing traffic light marks the town's main intersection, where Route 36 meets Route 206. There's a Subway sandwich franchise nearby, but most of the businesses are home-grown, like the Stop & Go Pit Barbecue, Collum's Steakhouse, and Wild Texas Taxidermy. In one block of Route 206, the town's main street, a well-tended, 8,500-volume library occupies a storefront alongside a pool hall. Small, generally conservative Christian churches are plentiful.

Cross Plains High is on Route 206, a few blocks from the main intersection. Last Dec. 6, trouble began brewing north of town, at a keg party on a ranch in Eastland County, according to then-Police Chief Ed Duncan. About 50 students were at the party, including about 30 Cross Plains athletes and the two boys who eventually would claim responsibility for the fire. At some point during the party, the two boys left, hopped into a pickup truck, and drove to town. The other teenagers at the party say they didn't know what the boys were planning, Duncan says.

Vol. 18, Issue 11, Pages 32-37

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