Students and teachers in at least 19 Los Angeles schools returned from winter break last week to find burglars had smashed locks and windows, seized computers and sprayed graffiti on walls, incidents that highlight a trend of vacation break-ins.
Los Angeles Unified School District police say there are about 400 burglaries at district campuses per year, resulting in millions of dollars in property damage or stolen equipment. About half of the break-ins occur during long weekends and the winter, spring and summer vacations, said Mike Bowman, the district's deputy chief of police.
"Schools are targets during breaks," said Chuck Miller, assistant principal at Birmingham High School in Van Nuys, where four classrooms were broken into over the three-week winter vacation. The school lost equipment estimated to be worth more than $100,000.
"Every school is a target. If they weren't targeted this break, they'll be targeted the next one," Miller said.
School district police say they expect that the number of campuses hit over the winter break will grow as more schools report their losses. Still, they say there may be fewer schools broken into than the previous winter break, when thieves hit 63 campuses.
In addition to thefts, break-ins often involve vandalism, officials say. At Irving Middle School, for example, intruders who broke in before Dec. 26 not only snatched 15 laptops, but also used fire extinguishers to destroy student work and instructional materials.
Schools are ripe targets for burglars because their expensive computers, digital cameras and LCD projectors are often protected by little more than a chain-link fence and a locked door. Meanwhile, campus police say they only have about five patrol cars on any given night to cover more than 700 acres and 1,000 sites.
As a result, the beginning of the year was grim for a class of second-graders at Saturn Street Elementary School near Culver City. The 18 students returned from winter break last week to find that burglars had made off with a boombox, the teacher's guitar, the digital clock the students won in a contest, and the year-old iMac used to make student films.
The walls, whiteboard and class library were splashed with paint and graffiti. On a stack of books used by an autistic student in the neighboring classroom, the burglars left a pile of human feces. A taunting message scrawled above the classroom calendar read: "Thanks 4 everything."
The incident left teachers at a loss. "I had promised [the students] we'd make a movie when we came back," said Mathew Needleman, the teacher who lost the iMac.
"Some of them even wrote ideas down over break about movies they'd like to write," he said.
Although officials say the amount lost every year to theft is hard to pinpoint, the district spent about $850,000 last year to replace property that was damaged or stolen, said Mildred Miyazaki, the district's deputy director of claims.
But teachers and administrators don't report all stolen items, especially if they won't qualify for insurance reimbursement. Bowman estimated a total loss of up to $10 million in stolen or damaged property a year.
As schools have increased spending on technology for classrooms, funds for campus security haven't kept pace. Camera systems are popular but pricey, costing $15,000 or more. And thieves have been known to take the security cameras. Most schools have alarms, but it can take an hour or more for understaffed district police to respond.
School police attribute the recent drop in winter break burglaries to the citywide decline in crime and to better locks installed on new and renovated classrooms. But they aren't sure if the trend will hold.
They have identified a new class of burglar who specializes in knocking over schools. Operating in crews, they rob classrooms blind, sometimes even making off with the class pet.
When Bowman was a detective for the district, he said that in one year he arrested a dozen people suspected of burglarizing at least 200 campuses.
One suspect told Bowman that when he was released from jail and in need of some quick cash, the first thing he did was to buy the Thomas Guide. Why?
"He wanted to find the nearest school," Bowman recalled.
On occasion, burglars don't even bypass a lock. Miller, at Birmingham High, said that when he was at Sylmar High School, thieves stole computers from the agricultural building by slicing through a wall with a battery-powered saw.
"If they want to get in," he said, "they're going to get in."
That's frustrating news for teachers like Saturn Street's Needleman.
His second-grade classes have won awards for their student-written and produced films. Last year, the school scraped together the money for the new computer.
One of Needleman's previous students wrote only two things all year -- both film scripts. "Those are the kinds of kids you reach with a computer that you don't reach otherwise," the teacher said.
Needleman isn't sure if the district will help replace the iMac, but he has started searching for grants and donors. He also enlisted his students to write to Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa for help.
"Dear Mr. V.," began the draft of one letter. "When we came back to school from winter vacation, the computer was stolen and the printer and my teacher's guitar. I was hoping to make a movie. They took our small clock that we won.
"I feel sad because we worked hard getting that clock.... May you please get us another one?"