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Published in Print: November 1, 1998, as Fire Power

Fire Power

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Whatever theories can be constructed as to why kids set fire to schools, there's just no explaining it sometimes.

Whatever theories can be constructed as to why kids set fire to schools, there's just no explaining it sometimes. Such was the case at Norwood Middle School, in the heart of a relatively small, middle-income district in southern Ohio. On January 30, with the school still brimming with extracurricular activities, a fire was touched off in the auditorium and nearly burned the historic 86-year- old building to the ground. Says principal Gerry Addison, "The firemen told us that if the fire had gone another 10 to 15 minutes undetected, we would have lost the whole building."

Addison immediately suspected a couple of students who had been in trouble the day before. But 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, 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 explains. "It was simply a case of very poor judgment and impulsivity. He was very remorseful. This was not something he intended to do."

The town of 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 like arthritic knuckles. You pass ranches, peanut farms, and vast hay fields before coming, at last, to 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 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. On December 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 kids were at the party, including about 30 Cross Plains athletes and the two boys who would eventually 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 deny knowing what the boys were planning, according to Duncan.

Once at the school, the boys entered by smashing a rear window with a chunk of concrete drainage pipe. Inside, Duncan says, they poured copier fluid on a desk and set it on fire. Duncan guesses that they thought "it was fun, so they did more."

What happened next is not clear; Duncan says the boys have never given a full accounting of their actions that night. But it appears that after they started a few fires in the school, the boys left and met up with Corey Lee Switzer, a former Cross Plains football player. Switzer had attended a bachelor party in Abilene earlier in the evening and was driving around town when he ran into the two suspects. Switzer and the boys then went to a nearby Conoco station, where they bought gasoline, Duncan says. Switzer has steadfastly maintained his innocence, saying he did not know what the two boys planned to do with the fuel.

Afterward, Switzer and the boys went their separate ways, according to Duncan, and the boys re-entered the school. One or the other--and possibly both--splashed gasoline over desks, floors, walls, the trophy case, and school records and set fire to it all. Along the way, Duncan says, they broke into vending machines and yanked the alarm system out of the wall.

Upon leaving the building, they broke into the nearby portable building and set it ablaze, too, according to Duncan. About 4 a.m., as the town slept, a woman who delivers newspapers saw smoke rising from the portable building and called the fire department.

Inspecting the damage later, fire officials concluded the boys stayed in the building quite some time. "To have gone through and done what they did and splash as much gasoline as they did, it looks like they'd have to have been in there at least an hour," says deputy state fire marshal Don Turk. "I came up with seven separate fires.

"Some of the areas had good starts, and some of them didn't. The superintendent's office got to going real good. The fire in the principal's office never did get going. They'd shut the doors, shutting off oxygen to it. The fires in the lockers never did start. Everything else was locked up. Had everything not been locked up, they would have put it on the ground. There would have been nothing the firefighters could have done about it."

P rincipal Rondall Sanders arrived at the school early on Sunday morning, December 7, when the building was still wreathed in smoke. As soon as it was safe, he toured what was left of his school. "When they finally let me in, everything was wet, muddy, and cold," he recalls as he walks through the main school building. It's now June, seven months after the fire, and reconstruction is under way. The new walls are unfinished, with electrical wiring poking through holes where switches and outlets soon will be installed, and there's a smell of hot tar as workmen clamber on the roof, making repairs. Just a hint of smoke lingers, but Sanders no longer notices it.

Some people in Cross Plains are ready to forgive the boys, but others doubt the two have undergone anything like a Pauline conversion. They'll have to see it to believe it.

Here and there, scars remain. The tile floors are charred in the hallway where the arsonists piled up winter coats and set them ablaze. Burnt wiring still dangles from the ceiling. Some of the steel beams supporting the roof are noticeably twisted. In a room near the superintendent's office, an old safe sits in the center of the floor, soot-covered.

It's all disturbing, but Charlene Fleming's chemistry classroom awakens Sanders' saddest memories. "This was the worst," he says. "The sad part is, Mrs. Fleming took it personally. I've never seen such a hurt person. She felt like the kids must have been mad at her for something. But I don't think they had a thing in mind against her. Her door was unlocked. It was just a coincidence."

When Sanders later led students through the burned-out building, the kids were stunned when they reached Fleming's room. "When they got to this door," he says, "Mrs. Fleming was standing in the room. It was totally quiet. There was lots of emotion."

Fleming, a petite, soft-spoken 23-year veteran of the Cross Plains schools, keeps a packet of photos of the school and her classroom she snapped the afternoon after the fire. "It was cold and dark and wet, and there was no electricity," she recalls. "It was almost like walking into a tomb."

She was relieved to learn that her room was not chosen out of spite. Some of what burned, however, were keepsakes from her many years in the classroom. "There was a teacher's prayer and a coffee cup students had given me," she says. Teaching in a different room, without these little mementos, has been disconcerting. "You just need to have something that's yours."


Vol. 10, Issue 2, Pages 25-28

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