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15-Year-Old Charged in Charter School Arson

By Del Quentin Wilber
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 22, 2005; Page B02

A 15-year-old student was arrested yesterday and charged as a juvenile in the first of two arsons that badly damaged a Northeast Washington charter school in December, officials said.

The student also was charged with setting fire to a stairwell in his apartment complex in Southeast Washington early Wednesday, officials said. No one was hurt in any of the blazes, they said.

A fire was set in the main office of the IDEA Public Charter School in Northeast Washington in December. A student, 15, has been charged in the arson and is scheduled to appear in D.C. Superior Court today. (Dudley M. Brooks -- The Washington Post)

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It was the first arrest in the arsons at the IDEA Public Charter School. The fires, on Dec. 7 and Dec. 15, forced the temporary closing of the school just before the winter break. Classes resumed in January.

Authorities said the D.C. Department of Fire and Emergency Medical Services received a tip that a 15-year-old resident set the fire that was discovered at 3:50 a.m. Wednesday at an apartment complex in the 2800 block of Gainesville Street SE.

Investigators tracked down the youth, who gave statements concerning the apartment fire as well as the first arson at the school, said Kathryn Friedman, a fire department spokeswoman.

The youth, whose name was not released because of his age, is scheduled to appear today in D.C. Superior Court.

Authorities said the teenager broke into the IDEA Public Charter School in the 1000 block of 45th Street NE early Dec. 7 and set fire to a classroom and main office. Computers, desks, a copy machine and other items were destroyed. A systems engineer reporting for work in the building about 3 a.m. alerted authorities to the fire.

The second fire, also set in the early-morning hours, damaged an auditorium and a classroom that was being used as an office. That fire remains under investigation, authorities said.

Norman Johnson, the school's executive director, did not realize that the suspect in the first arson was one of his students until he spoke to a reporter by telephone yesterday afternoon.

"I'm shocked," Johnson said. "I have mixed emotions. If it's one of our students, I am very disappointed. But if they caught somebody, I am relieved."

At the time of the arsons, school administrators said the fires caused about $1.5 million in damage. Johnson said yesterday that the damage estimate had risen to $2 million.

The IDEA school has about 370 students in grades 7 through 12. It was founded by a group of retired military personnel and civilian teachers and opened in 1998. Students participate in Army JROTC.

Investigators urged anyone with information about the second school fire to call the department's tipline at 866-91-ARSON.

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