Arson Damages Charter School

By Nicole Fuller
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 8, 2004

A Northeast Washington school was hit by arson early yesterday morning, with separate fires in a classroom and the school's main office causing substantial damage but no injuries, authorities said.

A systems engineer reporting for work inside the building about 3 a.m. alerted authorities to the fire at IDEA Public Charter School in the 1000 block of 45th Street NE.

The school, which has 367 students in grades 7 through 12, will remain closed until Jan. 3 while repairs are made to the building, said Norman J. Johnson, the school's director. He said some staff development and Easter vacation days will be canceled next year to make up for the lost class time.

"It could have been worse, so we feel blessed with the way it is right now," Johnson said. "It's sickening. We just have to go ahead and get this all cleaned up and back to this great educational facility."

Alan Etter, spokesman for the D.C. Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department, declined to say how the fires may have been set. He estimated damage at $20,000. Etter said the fire was not connected to the Washington region's serial arsonist.

One blaze raged through the school's main office on the first floor, destroying computers, desks, a copy machine and the school's telecommunications and security systems. A wooden bookshelf in a third-floor world history classroom also was set on fire. And the stage curtain in the school's auditorium was set ablaze, causing minor damage.

"All the desks [in the main office] were incinerated," said Principal William T. Dexter as he stood outside the office's charred doorway. "It wiped out a lot of our communications because this is where all of our telephone lines went through."

The school was founded by a group of retired military personnel and civilian teachers and opened in 1998 through a grant from the D.C. public schools, the U.S. Department of Education and the U.S. Department of Defense, Dexter said. The three-story building was constructed in 1909 and once housed the George Washington Carver School. An addition to the school was completed in the 1970s.

Students in grades 9 through 12 are required to participate in Army JROTC, and the school houses updated science laboratories and offers Advanced Placement classes in a variety of subjects.

"Someone who has done this obviously doesn't care about education," Johnson said. "This is just going to make us work even harder to educate our students."

Etter asked that anyone with information in this case call the department's Arson Tip Line at 866-91-ARSON.

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