Thieves Continue to Plague School District

Juan Crespi Middle School teacher Pat Dornan walked into her room earlier this month to find the doors hacked open, the floor covered in broken glass and student achievement prizes -- among them a karaoke machine, CD player and bicycle -- stolen.

Dornan said burglars took $50,000 worth of goods. Whoever broke in also smashed the screen of a computer that had been bolted down for security, she said.

"They couldn't steal it, so they broke it," she said.

The first two weekends of October, thieves hit Crespi, El Sobrante Elementary School and De Anza High School, all in El Sobrante, said Vince Kilmartin, associate superintendent of operations for the West Contra Costa school district.

The district sent a patrol car to rove the neighborhoods, Kilmartin said.

This past weekend, a district officer and Richmond police caught two suspects at De Anza, said district police Chief Rudy Gonzalez. One suspect attends the school. The other is an adult not affiliated with the district, said Gonzalez, who did not identify either suspect.

A district officer called for backup from the Richmond Police Department, which brought in dogs that sniffed out suspects near the intersection of Santa Rita Road and De Anza Drive, he said.

Gonzalez said Richmond police are investigating whether all the burglaries are related.

Whoever masterminded the thefts may work with a network of people, Kilmartin said.

"We suspect that it's somebody that understands how the district is organized," Kilmartin said.

At Crespi, burglars appeared to use sledgehammers and crow bars to break in, said David Azcarraga, maintenance and operations officer.

The district has installed screens and bars over the windows, reinforced the doors of Dornan's room and placed a security guard nearby, Azcarraga said.

"We beefed up those doors incredibly," Azcarraga said. "But if you're using heavy equipment, there are very few doors that will stop you."

At De Anza, burglars took the school announcement system used for dances and rallies, said computer animation teacher Larry Hatfield. District officials could not enumerate the value of items taken from all three schools.

Hatfield said he lost several thousand dollars in equipment this summer on two different occasions. Someone stole a computer and two flat-screen monitors, he said, and pried open a locked file cabinet and took a $400 digital camera and a $1,000 digital camcorder.

Last fall, someone stole five computers, a projector and a VCR, Hatfield said. Around that time, new construction tools, including huge table saws, also went missing from the vocational program, he said.

"I don't know who's doing it, but it seems like they certainly know when something new is delivered," Hatfield said. "Sometimes it walks away the very next day."

Dornan said thieves burglarized her room three times last fall.

"I would like to walk into my room and not find broken glass," Dornan said.

Meanwhile, she is looking for ways to replace student achievement prizes, which go to those who earn higher than a 2.0 grade-point average or have raised their grades by half a point.

Crespi students said the thefts -- five in a year -- have demoralized them.

"Every time that we get broken into, a little bit of us is also stolen," said eighth-grader Junnida Siribounthong, secretary of the student council.

"It has taken a long time to get our confidence back, but it gets harder each time."

Contra Costa Times

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