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Two Small Fires Set at NW High School

Students Suspected in Series of 12 D.C. Blazes

By David A. Fahrenthold and Justin Blum
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, April 1, 2004; Page B01

Two trash cans were set on fire yesterday afternoon in separate incidents at a Northwest Washington high school, the latest in a series of small but disruptive blazes at D.C. public schools in the last two weeks, authorities said.

Yesterday's fires at Cardozo Senior High, which caused the school to be evacuated, were the 11th and 12th blazes to be set in city schools since March 19.

Marion McDowell expresses how upset she was over not being notified about recent fires at Eastern High. McDowell, who is a teacher, has a student at the school in Northeast. (Susan Biddle -- The Washington Post)

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The fires have been set with matches or lighters, and without an accelerant such as gasoline, to burn papers in trash cans, lockers, and classroom desks. The blazes have done little damage, but one person required hospital attention -- a janitor at Eastern Senior High who suffered smoke inhalation Monday while trying to extinguish a fire at the Northeast Washington school.

Fire officials said that the blazes most likely have been set by students and that they have found no links to a serial arsonist who has targeted residences in the area over the past year. The school fires have caused evacuations and major interruptions in class schedules, schools officials said. Five schools have been struck, and officials worried that any future fires might be more destructive.

"They think it's funny and they think it's cute," Reginald C. Ballard Jr., principal of Cardozo, said of students."But it's not. People can be hurt."

Six of the fires have been at Eastern and three at Cardozo. The other recent fires were at Ballou Senior High in Southeast; the New School for Enterprise and Development, a public charter school in Northeast; and Evans Middle School, also in Northeast.

Authorities have made an arrest in one of the fires, charging a 15-year-old Ballou student with setting a trash can on fire Monday. The student, whose name was not made public because he is a juvenile, appeared yesterday in D.C. Superior Court and was released into his mother's custody.

Principals at Cardozo and Eastern said yesterday that they have identified some students as suspects. The principals said the students were identified by surveillance cameras or witnesses. The students have been suspended and their names have been given to authorities, the principals said.

At Cardozo, Ballard met with students yesterday.

"I let them know that in no uncertain terms are we going to have a repeat of what's going on at Eastern," Ballard said. "We're going to arrest every single child involved."

Fire department statistics show that about 20 fires have been set deliberately this academic year in the District's public schools. Those include four blazes at Fletcher-Johnson Education Center in Southeast and two at H.D. Woodson Senior High in Northeast.

Fire officials were unable to say whether this total is higher than in recent school years. Last school year, there were 13 fires at Anacostia Senior High alone. A 15-year-old student was arrested for setting a blaze there, but fires continued to be set there.

Kenneth Watts, the city's acting fire marshal, said yesterday that students might not be to blame for all the recent fires because some schools have lax security arrangements that could allow outsiders to enter campuses undetected.

But Watts said he thinks the fires are probably the work of mischievous students. He said these youths set fires to skip out of class.

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