Three boys arrested in school vandalism
The preteens are accused of two acts of arson and vandalism at Clearwater's Belleair Elementary, causing up to $2,000 in damage.

By CHRIS TISCH, Times Staff Writer
St. Petersburg Times
published April 19, 2003

CLEARWATER -- Three elementary school students have been charged in connection with two arsons and vandalisms at Belleair Elementary School.

Clearwater police arrested the boys last week on burglary and arson charges. The youngest of the boys is a 9-year-old third-grader. The oldest is a 12-year-old sixth-grader. Two of the boys are brothers; the other, a cousin.

Police said the boys broke into the school late last month and again on April 5.

They tore up games and equipment, broke exit lights, tore a water fountain from a wall, spread feces around and tried to light several fires. None of the fires caused much damage, but they certainly could have, said Detective John Diebel, who arrested the boys.

"The first time it could have gotten out of hand if they had lit the right things on fire," Diebel said.

The boys are not being identified because of their ages. Two attended the school, while the third went to Largo Middle.

The boys were suspended for 10 days and have been transferred to other schools, said Marcia Gibbs, principal at Belleair Elementary. At least one of the boys, and possibly two, will be held for 21 days at the Juvenile Detention Center. One has been released to his parents, Diebel said.

Gibbs said the total damage to the school was between $1,500 and $2,000. She said the 450 students at the school, 1156 Lakeview Road, were shielded from the incidents.

"We're all very upset about it," Gibbs said. "We're here to help children and it's very disconcerting. It's an invasion of our school and our privacy."

Police said the boys first broke into the school sometime over the weekend of March 21-24. The boys made their way into a covered area between the school buildings and a storage shed used for physical education classes.

The two younger boys tore paper off an easel and started fires in the storage room, which is filled with balls, mats and other plastic materials that easily could have caught fire. The oldest boy stopped them from lighting more fires, Diebel said.

"In a little room like that, it could have gotten out of hand," the detective said.

School officials found the damage the next school day and reported it to police. Two weekends later, a Clearwater police officer patrolling the area saw the boys inside. By the time the officer got near them, the boys had bolted on their bicycles. But the officer saw them closely enough to jot down good descriptions.

Police brought those descriptions to school officials the next school day. Gibbs said she recognized the descriptions and led police to the boys. They denied being involved, but the younger one said he had witnessed the crime. He said the vandals went to another school but gave descriptions that exactly matched himself and his brother.

"I'm thinking, 'This little kid is lying and he's involved,' " Diebel said. "He just knew too much."

The boy later admitted to Gibbs that he and the others were responsible, Gibbs said.

"I just think they didn't have a lot to do," Gibbs said. "I would never have guessed it was someone in our school that did it. Most of our children would never do anything like that. They have a lot of pride in their school."

Officials said the two brothers recently moved to the area from out of state. They had only been going to the school for a short time but had wracked up some disciplinary referrals, Gibbs said.

"We were very pleased that we were able to find out who it was," Gibbs said. "That needs to stop and they need help. Hopefully, they'll be able to rehabilitate themselves. They're both nice young men. They've made some poor choices in the past here at the school."

Diebel said police could never understand a motive. The younger boys do not have previous criminal records. The oldest boy has a couple of minor crimes in his history.

While the oldest one shed some tears and was remorseful when talking to investigators, the younger two were laughing and joking about it as they were being transported to the detention center, Diebel said.