LONG BEACH - Having local police investigating a crime scene that happens to be a classroom has become a common occurrence at Ocean Beach Primary School this year - one Principal Bette Arne would like to see come to end.
The school, which consolidated the student bodies and staff from both Long Beach and Ocean Park Elementary Schools this year as construction begins at the Ocean Park campus, has been burglarized five times since the school year began just three months ago - most recently on Sunday, Nov. 24.
"Its not because teachers are leaving the doors or windows open or anything, they are actually breaking the locks," said Arne last week. "This latest one, they actually took the computers apart and took memory, hard drive, CD-Rom ... we had just put a [MacIntosh] G3 tower back in there on Friday and they totally cleaned that out, left the tower and took everything else."
The burglary spree began in the days before school actually started, at the former alternative school building being used by the elementary this year. A laptop computer, a projector and a camera were among the items taken. Arne said it's possible there a teacher may have forgotten to lock the door, as many were going in and out of the building throughout the day for teacher meetings.
Since then, the robberies have taken place in three classrooms that are part of the portable units located on the east or back side of the school complex. In the case of two of those classes, the doors were pried open with a crowbar - the other, however, has a more chilling prospect. Arne said they believe the robber was possibly hiding in the room and waited for the teacher to leave for the night.
On Oct. 2, Amy Curry returned to her room, after locking the door behind her when she left the night before, to find the door still locked - but when she went inside she found her room tossed.
"In that one closet," said Curry, pointing to the only location in the class in which someone could hide. "I was in here for an hour and that's really weird for somebody to be hiding in there for an hour."
"That was a bit scary," said Arne. "The stuff they're taking, they wouldn't need a car, they would just stuff it in their pockets and take off. They took a bag of Costco snack mix, Amy had a personal cosmetics bag that they took and Iomega Zip drives."
Since that break-in, the door to Curry's room has been tampered with but to no avail, as a new deadbolt lock has been installed.
Hit the hardest has been the portable building which houses Mary Raff's and Jenny Schmidt's classes, burglarized three times in the last three months. Arne said it looked as though the robbers came specifically for the computers in those classes, but also went through all the cabinets and drawers in the classrooms looking for items. The two classes have had their computers taken apart to steal parts from, plus printers and software stolen. Raff even had a personal computer that she used in her class defiled by the thieves.
"Mary had her own computer that was totally gutted," said Arne.
Arne showed how the older model computers in Raff's class weren't touched, only the newer iMac models. They also didn't touch the TVs or VCRs in each class.
"Before this year, these rooms have never been bothered before," she explained. Arne said she thought perhaps the robbers had moved north after Ilwaco High School installed a security system last summer.
In Schmidt's room, during the latest break-in, the robbers stole the entire insides of a Mac G3 tower - which had just been replaced after a previous break-in - as well as a printer, memory and software, using a bag that was full of dinosaur-reading materials, which were dumped on the floor and left, to haul it away.
"The third time, it just starts to get kind of scary for the kids," Schmidt said of the 24 first- and second-grade students she teaches in her class. "If I was a child, it wouldn't make me feel very safe to be in my classroom when I know that somebody's been in here looking through things."
The computers tampered with are used by the students as part of the school's accelerated reader program. Students also take quizzes and play math games on them as well. Since their printers were taken, they can no longer print anything in the classroom. Raff must go up to the school office - not horrible, but certainly an inconvenience for a teacher trying to run a class of young students.
"Kids don't need to see policemen coming into their classrooms for reasons like that," Schmidt said.
Raff agreed with Schmidt's statement, saying it is traumatic for the students.
"The whole room's been ransacked and the police say 'Don't touch anything,'" Raff said of a previous experience. "So my students walk in and see this and they are horrified. They stop at the door, they're mouths drop open and they go, 'Teacher, teacher, what's happened?' And I have to be truthful."
She said that when she told the students that they had been burglarized, the students were very sad that their room had been disturbed and their stuff all over the floor. Raff said that she asked the police if she could pick up the mess before the children could see it but was denied in order to keep the crime scene intact.
"So I spend the morning teaching reading with all these computers all over the floor and drawers pulled out that I can't touch," said Raff. "One time, I taught reading class while the police were there fingerprinting. It's horribly disturbing."
Hunter Stocksleth, a second-grader in Schmidt's class, remembered walking into the room a week ago after the latest break-in.
" I didn't like it," he said. "I don't like it when people break into our room. It makes me feel like somebody doesn't like us. I think about who did it and why."
Schmidt said that it is certainly something that she thinks about as well when she works in her room on the weekends or in the evening.
"That's a scary thing," she said. "I always look in the bathroom when I come in the room. I don't know what good it would do if I found somebody, but just for my piece of mind I always have to make sure that there isn't somebody in there."
Schmidt said this laughing, but you could tell she didn't find it funny - making it a joke it helps ease the anxiety for her. Her class recently wrote a group letter [in today's paper] as a sort of therapy. Raff said she is struck with anxiety pulling into the parking lot each morning, not knowing what she is going to find.
But what have the police found? Arne said that after the last break-in police did find some evidence that will be used in their investigation, but as of last Wednesday they had no leads. Arne said the method and goal of these recent break-ins are very similar to a break-in at Ocean Park School last December.
Deadbolt locks have been added to all outside buildings, as well as some other security measures which Arne did not want to disclose, in hopes of quashing future burglary attempts.
Students in the classes affected will be getting by with a few less computers - some were able to be fixed with spare parts - but for Raff, it's the emotional scar that the students will carry from this that bothers her the most.
What would she say the person or persons responsible?
"I hope you like the food in jail, because that's where you belong!"