Bullets lodged in doors. Garbage bins set ablaze. Smashed computers and musical instruments. Each year, East Valley schools spend hundreds of thousands of dollars cleaning up the messes made by vandals.
Just Thursday, Gilbert High School workers cleaned up threatening graffiti that had been spray-painted on two portable buildings.
While schools aren’t consistent in how they track such incidents, officials say vandalism in some school districts is on the rise.
In the Mesa Unified School District, the state’s largest, the number of vandalism incidents rose 22 percent between the 2005-06 school year and the 2006-07 school year.
At a cost of $514,000 — enough to buy more than 730 brand-new school computers — last year was the worst for vandalism that Mesa district officials have seen yet, said Rick Michalek, director of operations.
Every so often, an act of vandalism is so large and malicious that it grabs the public’s attention.
As in August, when some 4,000 Scottsdale students went without bus service after vandals there scaled 9-foot block walls to smash windshields on 79 school buses. It was the second time such an incident occurred in Scottsdale since April, causing a combined $190,000 in damages.
Within a few days after that, officials from at least five nearby districts — including Mesa — contacted Scottsdale to see how the district handled it.
”They want to get all of our contact information of all the people we talked to, to get things fixed,” said Dave Peterson, assistant superintendent of operations, who added the districts also asked about potential security weaknesses Scottsdale has identified and what it’s doing to make sure the incidents are not repeated. Still, the majority of districts’ vandalism costs come from smaller-scale incidents.
The Chandler Unified School District spends an average $50,000 a year, and the Tempe Union High School District spends about $10,000 to $20,000 annually repairing vandalism at their schools.
The damage extends beyond dollars and cents.
“Sometimes the cost doesn’t tell the whole story,” Michalek said. “It absolutely impacts the kids, if a kid comes in and there’s glass all over the floor or something. For some of these kids, the best experience they have, if they don’t have much of a home life, is at school. It impacts these kids, when they see those things.”
Thursday’s graffiti vandalism at Gilbert High School contained a threat of violence, prompting officials to beef up security.
A police bomb-sniffing dog was brought in to comb the campus. And, teachers, custodians and other staff checked rooms and trash barrels for anything suspicious, said Dianne Bowers, spokeswoman for the Gilbert Unified School District.
School officials say they try to minimize the impact by cleaning up damage quickly.
“We try to get it even before the kids show up at school,” said Jim Lee, assistant superintendent in the Paradise Valley Unified School District.
But the effects of vandalism can last beyond the initial cleanup.
Last year at west Mesa’s Adams Elementary School, a small group of older children broke into the cafeteria, worked their way into the music room and smashed violas, cellos and violins.
“They were things we had to loan because obviously those aren’t instruments families can all afford,” principal Devon Isherwood said.
It took six months to replace the instruments, during which time the children who had signed up for orchestra weren’t able to participate, she said.
Adams was plagued with 33 vandalism incidents last year, and two break-ins, according to district records.
Some districts have turned to security cameras to curb vandalism.
The Tempe Union district has more than 40 surveillance cameras at each high school.
In the Kyrene Elementary School District, where workers spend some $6,000 on bus seat repairs alone each year, most buses have their own security cameras — but the schools don’t.
Other districts, such as Apache Junction, Chandler, Mesa, Scottsdale and Tempe Elementary, have security cameras in place at only some schools.
Schools also turn to their staff to protect property.
Kyrene Elementary, Chandler Unified and Tempe Union districts have employees who live at some schools so they can check them at night. Education officials say they are serious about catching offenders. Scottsdale won $70,000 in restitution for vandalism during the 2006-07 school year and $46,000 the year before that. Vandals are usually caught bragging about what they’ve done. That’s how two Chaparral High School students in Scottsdale were arrested on arson charges last year after playground equipment at Copper Ridge School was set on fire, Peterson said.
Scottsdale is offering a $4,000 reward for tips that lead to arrests in the school bus case.
“Our hope there is, that one, they get a lot of prison time,” Peterson said, “and two, they have a lot of money somewhere so we can go after it.”
Tribune writers Amanda Keim, Tammy Krikorian, Christian Richardson and Hayley Ringle contributed to this report