THE FIRE that gutted Fort Hunt High School last December differed from other acts of vandalism committed against public property chiefly in its scale. It put out of commission a facility serving some 1,700 students and one that was its rather tight-knit community's pride. In the succeeding months the fire forced major dislocations on the two other high schools that took in the Fort Hunt people. The discussions attending the shifting of the Fort Hunt population and the decision to rebuild the ruined school drew in waves of Fairfax County citizens, who went as it with the intensity characteristic of debate on vital educational and financial issues in the high-pressure atmosphere of suburban Washington politics. The Fort Hunt fire, in other words, was more than a community disaster. It became an absorbing test of community collaboration too.

That is why it was so satisfying to see the sentence that Circuit Court Judge Lewis H. Griffith imposed on the two teen-agers convicted of setting the fire. On top of a year in prison, each was ordered to put in 3,000 hours of volunteer community work and to make restitution of $10,000 in earned funds. The aspect of this sentence that imposes a burden on the two arsonists seems reasonable and routine enough. The special aspect is the one that acknowledges their debt to, and their continuing link with, the community. Vandalism is a community disease in the sense that the perpetrators are so often, as in this instance, members of the particular community they harm. It is right that the treatment should recognize this link between perpetrator and community and should involve some actual as well as symbolic restoration of benefit to the community. This sentence addresses precisely the element of belongingness the arsonists had abused.

There is something else. The Fort Hunt fire produced in its community, and perhaps elsewhere, a wave of introspection: how could our sons have ravaged the community property? The fundamental integrity of the community - the respect its members necessarily place in each other - had been assaulted. Judge Griffith's sentence, reestablishing a model of respect, can help importantly to restore the integrity of the community. He has performed a valuable service.