Fire Power

By Jeff Meade — November 01, 1998 21 min read

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.”

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.”

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.

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.”

Joe Coppinger’s English classroom was next door. It, too, sustained serious damage. “It was my 17th year in that room,” he says. “And it was well-known that you don’t mess with Mr. C’s room. I had a real attachment to it.”

In spite of the horror visited upon the school, not a day of class was missed. Home economics classes were transplanted to a hallway of the elementary school. Students learned history lessons in locker rooms. Math was taught in the old field house. Fleming took over a classroom in the nearby agricultural education building. And Sanders wedged his lanky body into a makeshift office in a storage room under the gymnasium bleachers.

The Abilene schools donated a three-room portable building, and many surrounding districts helped out with desks and supplies. Local businesses, like the Wal-Marts in Abilene and Brownwood, chipped in, too. Since there were no lockers, students were given backpacks.

Sanders and his colleagues resolved to get back to business as soon as possible. But first they needed to attend to their own grief and to that of the students. On the Monday after the fire, Sanders convened a student assembly. “It was mainly to let students know what was going on,” he says. “We asked people to just come up and talk. Some students wrote letters to the firefighters, thanking them for their help.”

By that time, no arrests had been made, and most of the students were unaware that the two people responsible for the tragedy sat in their midst.

Sanders knew, though. “Some of the kids had been telling us that there were some who left that party,” he says. “I knew they were suspects.” He recalls seeing the two boys at the assembly. “They were sitting about five rows behind me. They were having a tough time of it. They were sweating it out pretty bad.”

In the fire’s aftermath, local and state investigators gathered with officials from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms to sort out leads. They, too, had heard about the party, and, together with an ATF officer, Ed Duncan began nosing around. “We talked to the boys and interviewed a lot of kids at the party,” he says. “We thought these boys were lying to us. After we confronted them, they admitted it.” By mid-afternoon on Monday, both boys were under arrest.

Stories soon circulated about why the school was targeted. Local newspaper accounts suggested the boys had burglarized the school’s vending machines to take goodies back to the keg party; the fires were set simply to cover their tracks, it was said.

Some people in town hinted that the boys had it in for the principal and superintendent. Callahan County District Attorney Allen Wright, who prosecuted the two boys, says he heard rumors that at least one of the boys had a beef with a teacher or administrator and talked of setting fire to the school days earlier.

But Wright doesn’t think the evidence suggests that. The offices of the principal and superintendent were torched, but so were many other areas of the building. The boys have never explained why they set the fires, according to Wright. “I just think it was a prank,” he says. “They went in there to do some vandalism, and apparently one thing led to another, and it got worse and worse.”

Principal Sanders suggests the fire was the result of some partying that got out of hand. Neither boy had a track record as a troublemaker before the fire. “I think this all stemmed from drugs and alcohol,” he says.

One of the boys has returned to the school to talk about the dangers of substance abuse, and his family has spoken at drug-awareness events. According to his father, the boy had begun running with a fast crowd and was drunk the night of the fire. “From talking to our son, we just think it was something that got out of hand,” the father says. “But it’s not like we have all the answers at this point.”

The father says the boy has undergone extensive psychological tests since his arrest, none of which indicates that he has deep-seated emotional problems. “This was an aberration,” he says, “We’re thankful for that.”

Joe Coppinger, who retired as a teacher at the end of last year to devote himself full time to his duties as pastor of the Cottonwood Baptist Church, knew the boy well. His family, whose ancestors helped settle the area, is stable and supportive, Coppinger says. The father is a leader in the Cottonwood church. The boy is simply a good, smart kid who made an awful, stupid choice, Coppinger says. “He had no idea why he did it.”

The other teen did not have such a Norman Rockwell-like upbringing. He came from a broken, dysfunctional family; according to Wright, the boy was living with an older cousin before the fire. The cousin indirectly played a role in the fire: He bought the beer for the keg party at the ranch, Wright says, and has since been convicted of serving alcohol to minors.

Although the boy was a starting lineman for the Buffaloes and got lots of help from people in town, he showed signs that he was troubled. “He grew up deprived of love and understanding,” Coppinger says. “In the classroom, he liked to get lots of attention. He caused minor problems.”

Whatever the boy’s problems, Wright says, he was not a menace. The prosecutor has talked several times with the boy and his cousin. “They are nice boys, soft-spoken, polite. I don’t know why they twisted off like this. These are not low-down, mean kids from a gang or something.”

Coppinger, a tall, balding, and quietly authoritative man who speaks with a soft drawl, has ministered to the two young boys since their arrest. They both regret what they did, he says, and the boy from his congregation is deepening his religious faith. “He’s so repentant. He poured his heart out to me and told me how sorry he was.”

Now, the boy reads the Bible every day and helps other teens learn their math at the Brownwood State School, run by the Texas Youth Commission. He hopes to go on to college and a career in the ministry, Coppinger says. “He wanted to go to TYC. He wanted a visible demonstration that he had paid the price. When he writes his letters from TYC, he sounds just like the apostle Paul.”

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

The sign outside Jean’s Feed Barn boasts “home cookin’ ” and advertises the day’s special, catfish steak. Inside, the restaurant’s vestibule is a shrine to the Cross Plains Buffaloes, its walls festooned with yellowing press clippings. A computer-generated banner over the door to the dining room proudly declares: “The Big Bad Buffs Are Here To Stay.”

Proprietor Jean Wilson recalls hearing news of the two boys’ arrests. Her diners, she says, “were in a state of shock. They couldn’t believe that those types of people would do something like that. Everybody has really suffered from it, thinking of how uncalled-for it was.”

At that point, she says, virtually no one was ready to forgive the boys. “It’s a close-knit family,” she explains. “When something like this happens, it’s devastating to the whole community.” But she says that over time, feelings of anger and resentment faded, and the incident began to serve as a unifying force. “It has brought the whole community together to a certain extent,” Wilson believes. “People here are so close. What hurts one hurts the whole community.”

After the blaze, Charlene Fleming visited the home of one of the boys. She recalls finding “just a crushed little boy who knew he had done something terrible.” She, too, hopes for the best, but she recognizes that some things can never be made right. “They might make it,” she says. “They might make a difference in someone else’s life. But they’ve lost a lot of their youth.”

If there’s anyone with a firm claim on hope, it’s Joe Coppinger. As a minister, he believes the gospel leaves him little choice. And he’s an ardent believer in an “all things are possible” philosophy; the words of Tennyson are enshrined on a plaque in his study: “More things are wrought by prayer than this world dreams of.”

“This was such an awful thing they did,” Coppinger concedes. But “if something good doesn’t come out of it, it’ll be even more terrible. I do believe something good is coming out of this, and it’ll be worth more than a burned school.”

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A version of this article appeared in the November 01, 1998 edition of Teacher as Fire Power