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By Anacostia Senior High School standards, the first fire of the day was nothing special. Around noon, firefighters received a familiar dispatch, and were on their way to the schoolwith three engine companies, a ladder truck, a battalion chief, and an investigation team.
“Most of [the students] didn’t even notice what was going on until we came back in with an investigator,” says engine driver Greg Spriggs. Spriggs overheard one student comment to another: They gotta stop setting all these damn fires in here.
Officials led investigators to a first-floor boys’ restroom, where they found the remains of a trash-can fire. “A maintenance guy had pretty well put it out with water by the time we got there,” says Captain Larry Anderson. The investigators nevertheless took pictures and began to interview students and faculty.
The fire was in the only unlocked boys’ restroom on the first floor of the building’s central wing. Interim Principal Lamar Williams decided to lock the other bathrooms to deny firestarters unmonitored spaces. (Principal Mildred Musgrove has been on administrative leave since investigators found locked exit doors after a Feb. 24 blaze.)
Williams also oversees other security measures at the school. Students entering Anacostia High go through both a pat-down and an electronic backpack screening. The school has also hired extra security personnel, solicited arson tips from students, and screwed shut unused lockers that might be used to hide blossoming fires.
Visiting Anacostia High has become a frequent practice for D.C. firefighters. In the halls, stretches of yellow-painted locker doors are interrupted at frequent intervals by the dirty-brown, smoke-damaged ones. The school has had fires in lockers, stairwells, storage spaces, restrooms, and classrooms. “We go there so often, the dates start to melt together,” says Spriggs. “I’ve been to at least five….Most of them are just trash firesthere hasn’t been anything real bad.”
School officials postulate a small group of fire-starters. “What’s happening is you have a handful of people trying to be disruptive,” says Clay White, the school’s Washington Teachers’ Union representative. “The doors are openthey could walk right outbut they want to be mischievous.”
White, who’s worked in the D.C. school system for 36 years, says fires in public schools are nothing new. “It’s just in our case that you hear about it,” he says. “This is happening all over the city….Well, it may not be happening at Wilson. But in Wilson they have shootings.”
The 14 fires at Anacostia High since May 1 may be tied to the season, says Aleazor Taylor, coordinator for the city’s Juvenile Firesetters Program. “In the spring, kids tend to do things they wouldn’t do in winter months,” says Taylor. “It could be the weather, could be the fact that they’re getting out of school soon. There isn’t any research as to why they do itit’s just kids being kids.”
Under D.C. Public Schools policy, says Williams, Anacostia High must report every fire to the fire department, even those that have been put out. This policy has brought undue negative attention, including a pair of May write-ups in the Washington Times, to the school, argues White: “Say you have a fire in your kitchen, a grease blaze. You put it out: There’s no fire trucks coming up there.
“Don’t get me wrong,” continues White. “When there’s a fire, you want the appropriate resources….[But] of all the fires we’ve had at this school in years, only two, three at most, have done major damage.”
Although one teenage male is under investigation for the Wednesday-morning fire, and another is under arrest for a May 15 bathroom fire, none have gotten time, which is what White thinks they deserve. “You need to put them in jail, and advertise that: John Doe is in jail for two to three years because he sets fires.”
While investigators were conducting interviews after the bathroom fire, another fire broke out in a first-floor home-economics classroom. “One or two individuals ran by the room and threw burning papers, books maybe, inside a trash can,” says fire department spokesperson Alan Etter, who was a few rooms away. The fire quickly consumed the trash can’s contents and sputtered out.
“[The fire-setters] have got some nuts on them, that’s for sure,” says Etter. CP