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Published in Print: November 1, 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.

On Sunday, December 7, 1997, all the clocks in Cross Plains High School stopped at 3:30 a.m. By that time, the fire 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 broken through the roof, the entire school might have burned to the ground. 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, Cross Plains' 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 wreckage of charred desks, melted computers, and blackened test papers, they discovered evidence of seven separate fires within the school. The sharp odor of gasoline lingered in the hallways, offices, and classrooms. The fire, they concluded, had been set.

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 also arrested and accused of helping the two boys.

By the time stories about the fire appeared in the local papers, they were almost redundant. 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. 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 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 during 1997-98, a few more than the average in recent years. But the nature of the crimes was shocking, as boys with the fresh-faced innocence

of Mayberry's Opie took up high-powered weapons and calmly mowed down their classmates in the towns of Pearl, Mississippi; Jonesboro, Arkansas; and Springfield, Oregon.

Still, what happened in Cross Plains is illustrative of something nearly as alarming as the shootings. During the months that we were transfixed by the tales of kids killing kids, there were nearly as many stories--if not more--of kids 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. 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 old auditorium. And in March, police charged a 17-year-old student at a private high school for learning-disabled students with setting a blaze in a second-floor bathroom.

These arsons were by no means an aberration. More than half of all school fires are started intentionally, according to the United States Fire Administration. They account for $50 million in damage to school property annually, and they take the life of one person each year and injure another 80.

These statistics don't tell the whole story, though. "There are probably many more school fires than we know about," argues Paul Schwartzman, a mental health counselor in Rochester, New York, 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 Stephens, executive director of the National School Safety Center. "You talk with the teachers afterward, and they feel personally invaded and threatened."

The question of who sets school fires does not have a rock-solid answer. 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, for example, authorities still have not arrested anyone for a September 1995 blaze that caused $7 million in damages to Princess Anne High School.

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

"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, one of the leaders of a Rochester juvenile fire-setter prevention program, says school arson appears to attract older children. Residential fires are often set by children under 10 whose innate curiosity leads them to experiment with lighters or matches found around the home. As children grow older and become more mobile, however, some purposely light fires in vacant buildings, dumpsters, garages, fields, and schools.

Setting fires also seems to attract more boys than girls. 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," says Schwartzman. "Some of that is genetic, and some is socialization." But some of what motivates boys to set fires affects girls as well, and Schwartzman warns that they are catching up with boys.

Why do kids target schools? There's no single explanation. Sometimes, kids 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 explains.

Revenge is another motive. For students who've had a run-in with a principal or teacher, starting a blaze is a particularly satisfying retaliation, says Judy Coolidge, 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."

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

But safety officials and fire-prevention experts also suspect that some fires are set by troubled kids 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."

Is it possible that what motivates a kid to shoot up a cafeteria is similar to what motivates a kid to burn down the building? The National School Safety Center has studied school shootings since 1992 and built a checklist of 20 common characteristics of the kids who orchestrated the violence. Those characteristics are wide-ranging and include a preoccupation with weapons, explosives, or other incendiary devices, a history of serious discipline problems, and experience with abuse or neglect. Says Ron Stephens, "I'm speculating, but I wouldn't be surprised if some of those items on the list translate" for kids who set fires.

Schwartzman has never studied school arsonists specifically, but he says chronic neglect or abuse is one of the best predictors of a kid who will repeatedly 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." Or there may be other problems at home, including a parent's alcoholism or mental illness, divorce, or criminal involvement.

Kids with such troubled backgrounds often feel powerless, Schwartzman says. Sometimes, they strike out at something they perceive as wielding great power--a school, for example. Through arson, Schwartzman says, "they learn the power of fire."



Jeff Meade is a Philadelphia-based writer.

Vol. 10, Issue 2, Pages 25-28

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