Cash-strapped schools must pay to repair, clean up vandals' work

Maintenance crews will spend the next week making sure East Augusta Middle School pupils never see their ravaged sixth-grade hallway.

In June, vandals entered through a window, kicked in five classroom doors and sprayed fire extinguishers throughout the hallway, said Adam Flono, the director of maintenance and custodial services for Richmond County schools. The damage will cost the school system close to $3,000.

"When you see doors busted open like this with nothing taken, you know it's just kids. Kids that don't have enough to do," Mr. Flono said.

Shortly before a school year begins, school officials see a surge in vandalism.

The Augusta Chronicle compiled reports of criminal property damage and trespassing between 2004 and 2008 at all Richmond County public schools. Close to 200 incidents were reported, with the greatest number occurring between July and September -- 57 incidents of vandalism during those months over the five-year period. The second-highest rate of vandalism occurred between October and December, with 51 incidents.

The school system has installed security cameras in all high schools. Every middle school will have security cameras by the end of the semester, Mr. Flono said, but vandalism remains an issue.

"We caught these kids on the cameras, but we still haven't caught anyone yet," he said. "It's mostly window damage and sometimes doors, but it does add up."

In 2008, the 39 reported vandalism cases cost the school system $35,687 for repairs, materials and labor, Mr. Flono said.

Annually, the school system spends tens of thousands on repairing windows, replacing doors, removing graffiti and correcting other damage, said Benton Starks, the system's senior director of facilities. Though cases of vandalism remain steady during holiday and summer breaks, the cameras have deterred some vandals, Mr. Starks said.

"They know they're out there, so I think it makes them less likely to come out," he said. "We're enhancing the technology to help."

The school system received a $554,000 grant to place high-tech security cameras at middle schools, said Capt. Ted Brown, the system's interim director of public safety and security. The improved security system will likely better identify vandals.

Capt. Brown said parents can play a role in preventing vandalism because many of the culprits are juveniles.

"People should know where their children are and what they're doing," he said. "That can make the difference, because every time this happens it costs the school system. It's even more of an issue now with the budget the way it is."

The financial burden weighs heavy on the school system, but faculty, staff and students carry the burden of fear, said Morgan Road Middle School Principal La Monica Lewis.

Vandals threw rocks into her school and destroyed five windows in July, and crews are still repairing the damage.

"The kids weren't here, but it still makes you uncomfortable," she said. "Once it happens, it's the fear it will happen again."

Reach Stephanie Toone at (706) 823-3215 or stephanie.toone@augustachronicle.com.

VANDALISM REPORTS

Reports in the Richmond County school system:

200440
200535
200638
200747
200839
200921*

*Criminal trespass or property damage reports as of July 11.

THE COST: Richmond County schools spent $35,687 on repairing damage, replacing materials and labor costs because of vandalism in 2008. The school system did not collect statistical data on vandalism before last year.

Sources: Richmond County Sheriff's Office and Richmond County school system