The Downey Unified School District has filed three lawsuits in Downey Municipal Court against an 18-year-old and the mother of a former student, who is a minor, seeking restitution for more than $3,000 in vandalism to lockers at Warren and Downey high schools.
Although the district routinely attempts to recoup vandalism losses, the suits that were filed this month are the first the Board of Trustees has filed to try to recover damages.
“We rarely have this degree of (repeated) vandalism committed by the same persons at two different schools,” said board member Grace Horney, explaining why the board decided to sue in small claims court. “We decided we ought to pursue it because it affected a lot of students.”
First Major Arrest
The four vandalism incidents, which took place on three different dates, also represent the first time anyone has been arrested in a major incident of vandalism in the district, officials said.
Michael S. Campbell, 18, of South Gate was served Monday in a suit for $1,500, the maximum in small claims court. The district filed two claims totaling $1,666 against Vicki McManus, the mother of Christopher McManus, 17, who has been accused in the incidents. She has not been served yet.
More than 500 lockers had been pried open and their contents either stolen or strewn about in the Dec. 15 incidents at the high schools, school and police officials said. Campbell and the 17-year-old were arrested about midnight by police after a neighbor heard noises at Warren High on DePalma Street, said juvenile Detective Michael Connely of the Downey Police Department.
Campbell and the minor admitted to police that they had vandalized Warren High the night before and struck at both schools earlier that day, said Connely and then-Supt. Manuel Gallegos. According to police records filed in court, the minor also confessed to the Nov. 16 vandalism at Downey High.
“We have a lot of minor vandalism and we (usually) don’t have any idea who did it,” said Horney. “This time, we definitely had somebody (caught) in a major act of vandalism.”
According to police records filed in a criminal case against Campbell, police saw the suspects near the ransacked lockers and the two rode away from Warren High on bicycles. Campbell eluded police, who searched the area with police dogs, and he was found about 20 minutes later lying in the dense ivy growing along the school’s south fence.
No Contest Plea
The 18-year-old student at South Gate High School pleaded no contest to six counts of petty theft in February in Downey Municipal Court. He was sentenced to six months in jail and three years probation, which he will serve upon graduation.
The minor is to be arraigned in April on four counts of burglary, said Irwin Bloom, a deputy district attorney in the Downey juvenile branch office.
The loss by the district includes damage to 104 hinges, 316 handles, and various latches and doors of the vandalized lockers.
The district has an intrusion alarm system at both schools but the system is not connected to the lockers, which line the outside walls of classroom buildings, Gallegos said. The two young men did not break into any classrooms, he said.
The 17-year-old was expelled from a district high school in January and the district wrote his mother informing her it would file a suit against them in small claims court, Gallegos said.
Peter Lippman, the district’s business manager, said damage was originally tagged at $6,000, but because of the small claims limit, the district is seeking only $3,166 from Campbell and McManus.
The Downey district has a policy that calls for rigorous prosecution of vandals and requiring those legally liable to make restitution.
While a desire by schools to recover damages is fairly common, said Cathi Davis, director of communications for the Sacramento-based California School Boards Assn., what is unusual about this case is that someone was caught at the scene.
“Oftentimes they’re not caught,” she said, noting that sometimes a case is resolved when the parents are in a position to pay back damages or when the vandal is allowed to do some type of work or community service. She said she didn’t know how many school districts pursued cases with a lawsuit.
A spokesman for the Los Angeles Unified School District, the largest school district in the state, said the district staff members routinely file suits and “make an attempt to recover as much as possible.”
In 1984-85 school year, the Los Angeles district suffered $2,381,668 in major acts of vandalism and arson. Out of that amount, only $27,979 has been recovered from parents and students over 18, said spokesman Patrick Spencer.
In the Downey district, Lippman said, most cases are resolved before they are taken to small claims court. But letters sent to Campbell and McManus seeking payment for the damage have gone unanswered.
Neither McManus nor his mother could be reached for comment. School officials said the McManuses are no longer living at the address they list with the school district and the city. At that address, a woman who identified herself as Vicki McManus’ mother said her daughter and grandson had moved without telling her where they were going.
Campbell, in an interview Monday, said he does not know how he is going to pay the claim. He said he does not have a job or any money, but when “I get a job, I’ll have to take (some money) out every time I get a check.”
Campbell said he now regrets ever entering the high schools and ransacking the lockers. “What I did was stupid,” he said.
Speaking of his six-month sentence, which starts July 1, he said it “blew me away” and dashed plans to begin basic training with the Army in August. He signed up in November, a month before the Warren High School incidents.
“I . . . couldn’t understand that,” said Campbell, who asked the judge to permit him to complete his last semester in high school before going to jail.
Gallegos said the vandalism is not the most severe the district has experienced. An arson in February, 1982, at Warren High School caused $610,820 in damage.