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A heartbreaking essay on school break-ins

By Katy Murphy
Friday, June 10th, 2011 at 5:24 pm in buildings, crime, elementary schools.

Someone wrote this blog post about a break-in this week at the Burbank Preschool Center, a school for children with special needs.


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The district hasn’t yet provided stats on how many times people have broken into Oakland schools this year and how much they’ve taken, but it happens all too often. In fact, the break-in at Burbank followed burglaries at Grass Valley (stolen safe) and Redwood Heights (stolen computers and projectors), according to the school district’s spokesman, Troy Flint.

I don’t know who wrote the essay, posted on the “On Thoughtfulness and Randomness” blog, but you should read it. Here’s an excerpt:

I had to go there later in the day – and steeled myself walking in. District vans were parked outside the school, lots of people inside fixing things. Busy trying to make the break in go away.

Teachers were teaching. Eyes were sad, smiles forced. But children were going to lunch – teachers were helping them celebrate “super hero day” – children looked safe, happy, excited – oblivious to the damage, oblivious to the whispers of the adults. It was their school – and it was a good place to be.

The teachers made it that way – protected the children from what wasn’t right in the world. Kept their routines, listened to their stories about their costumes, worked on their colors and shapes – made the world calm, predictable, and safe. Protected the families too – told them gently, with assurance, with sympathetic smiles, with plans to make it better in the future – plans to keep the world from busting in again, stories of why everything would be OK.

The jokes started when the children were out of earshot – because that is how we all cope now. “I can’t believe they took my computer – you couldn’t give that clunker away on Craigslist!”…”I hope they didn’t take my 75 cents out of my desk – that was my mad money this week!” “Thank god they didn’t take my cube chairs – they took forever to get off of Donors Choose!” Sarcasm burying the honest disbelief of being robbed when you have next to nothing.

Why do so many of these crimes take place — and go unsolved? This has been going on for years, and we hear about plans to address the problems, yet they keep happening.

Flint said when the alarm goes off, the first call goes to the school — which is usually closed when the crime is happening. He said the Oakland schools police chief, Pete Sarna, has suggested asking the alarm company to have the initial calls go to a dispatcher instead.

Another major issue (Would-be pranksters, take note): False alarms. Flint also said there are so many that the police are sometimes slow to respond, if they do at all.

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  • Livegreen

    Why do they go unsolved? Because we have so few Police officers. I don’t know if Oakland Unified PD has their own investigators, or if OPD does that. But if it’s OPD they don’t have enough Investigators to cover burglaries.

    So what’s the solution? Well, OPD & OFD are still the biggest parts of the budget, all other departments want those two to be cut the most.

    When that happens, think more of these or any other crimes will get solved?

    Of course, everybody loves libraries (and needs them too), and everybody hates the Police, so that will help makes things easier…

  • interested citizen

    Why aren’t more of these crimes solved? My personal experience is that half the time the police did not show up to take a report (this was in the recent past when OUSD didn’t have its own police officers). When reports were taken, there was rarely an attempt to gather evidence. One officer told me that unless I could prove that the evidence left behind was directly related to the crime, they wouldn’t take it! What happened to the concept of investigation? Some break-ins did not set off an alarm because entry was gained by use of a district security code. Frankly, I would be surprised if the district actually keeps detailed records of break-ins. Does the district tabulate the annual cost of stolen materials and repairs needed? Or keep ongoing records on where, when, and how the crimes occurred? This is not a minor issue. Every year schools lose a huge amount of money due to theft and vandalism. No detailed records results in no oversight, no accountability, no comprehensive plan to prevent further crimes.

  • Can’t believe it

    I hesitate to mention this, but when I worked at an OUSD middle school, it was common knowledge that the janitors took the TVs and VCRs every summer- kind of like bonus pay. Schools aren’t hit randomly. it is based on inside info.

  • Harold

    The district gets ripped off all of the time. We need OPD and the media to help stop this from happening. Criminals are emboldened because they know that OUSD can’t protect our resources. We need to put these thieves on the cover of the newspaper. “Perp walks” into the City jail. Make it known that if you burglarize a school, we will throw the book at you!

  • wdcrachel

    I feel like this is a bigger issue around the relationship of schools to the community. How have schools become hostile spaces and targets of crime? Why are they not seen as oases for children and families?

  • Debora

    I have long thought that the district should have a contract with Lo-Jack or a similar type company that puts anti-theft tracking devices on cars for all electronics in the district. The first year would be expensive. However, not only would the district find the missing items they would find the thieves. All unions must agree that thieves lose their jobs. No exceptions. There are district schools that lose (through theft) 10 – 12 electronic items per year. If the district claims they can not afford the theft protection on all items they should prioritize from the largest percentage of theft to the least percentage of theft. I believe the savings in loss of items and.salary and benefits of those that are walking off with items would pay for the program.

    As a side note, I worked in a school in Livermore in which 85%+ of the students qualified for free and reduced price lunch. Students kept their backpacks hanging on hooks in an outdoor corridor. No backpacks were allowed in the classroom. Students left book fair money, lunch money and electronic items in their backpacks. Not once did I hear of missing items from backpacks.

  • Livegreen

    Re. comments 2-4, again there are not enough Investigators. Nothing you can do if you have about 30 people for an entire city, including murders. 2 investigators or something similar for ALL the burglaries in Oakland…

    Again, does OUSD PD have it’s own Investigators, or rely on OPD?

    Re. #4: Thieves are sometimes part of the community too…

  • Cranky Teacher

    I believe it is possible the value of good stolen from within the system dwarfs that of goods stolen through break-ins.

  • Nextset

    As usual it boils down to what kind of “school” we are running here. A real school deals with it’s problems in an effective if not ruthless way.

    I’m familiar with a local Jr College that had stealing going on by an employee. The school set traps for the thief. Battery operated portable and concealable cameras were used, bait was left. The thief was caught on video. Arrested, convicted and fired.

    In earlier times – when I was a student – my high school left bait dusted with powder that left purple stains on the hands of the thief. Stains that wouldn’t wash away for days.

    In all cases the “bait” was placed where the thief had no business rummaging around. In private drawers overnight, in lockers, in a purse.

    The point is the schools knew they had a rat and put rat traps together – the rat was killed.

    They didn’t wait for the police to come and fix it or for the thief to get tired of stealing and go away. The principal or the administrator just dealt with the problem.

    Maybe the difference now is that the local principal has no power and no responsibility to troubleshoot.

    Anyway, we didn’t invent stealing in 2011. If I were the school board I’d tell administration to deal with it’s problems or we find new administration that will.

    The other thing I remember is that the principals of the past maintained an effective networks of informants. Principals took their jobs seriously, there were not going to be any surprises on their watch. Should probable cause be developed a search warrant can be obtained very quickly for the cars and residences of suspected employees. That’s where police are needed – to serve those warrants. I’ve seen that done for public employees – cars, safe deposit boxes, residences, storage rentals. It happens, it’s not difficult at all to do.

    And it doesn’t have to happen often. Word goes out as to who is not a good victim and who is. Maybe OUSD is just being a good victim.