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Playground Fires: Big Headache For Students, Cops & Mpls. School District

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(credit: CBS) Rachel Slavik
Rachel Slavik joined the WCCO team in October of 2010 and is thrill...
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MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) – Parts of playgrounds at several Twin Cities schools are off-limits to students. Since June, five fires have burned playground equipment at four different schools in Minneapolis.

The first fire happened at Lucy Craft Laney Community School on June 13. Northstar Elementary reported two fires: one on Aug. 5 and the other on Aug. 21. The Hmong International School dealt with a fire on Sept. 1. The most recent fire happened at Lyndale Community School on Sept. 8.

Investigators don’t believe the fires are connected.

Still, recess isn’t what it used to be for Lyndale Community 3rd-grader Angel Espinoza.

“It kind of makes me feel sad,” Espinoza said.

For the last two weeks, he hasn’t been able to use his favorite slide or favorite tunnel. After a fire, the school removed the playground equipment.

“There was a little cave in there to hide, but it’s all burned up and we can’t hide,” Espinoza said.

“I was kind of upset,” he added Angel’s father, Erik Espinoza, “not just for kids but the whole neighborhood.”

Arson investigator Sgt. Sean McKenna looked into five fires over the last three months, well above the summer norm. In a typical year, investigators see one fire.

“It’s frustrating,” McKenna said.

In some cases, surveillance cameras on the schools can help in the investigation. Surveillance video captured the fire at the Hmong International School, near Jordan Park, along with the boys who started it.

“This definitely is an act of vandalism,” McKenna said.

In just a matter of minutes, the fire caused $30,000 in damage to a playground that had recently been replaced.

“The one at Jordan Park burned last February, so, it’s shelf life was 18 months,” McKenna said.

Yet, finding who started these fires isn’t easy. Surveillance video won’t always lead to an arrest, because it doesn’t always clearly show faces of the culprits.

Sometimes, fires are started when children are playing with matches. Investigators believe that’s the case in the two Northstar Elementary School fires.

Also, if a child is under the age of 10, they can’t be prosecuted.

“I hate playground fires. They’re difficult to investigate,” McKenna said. “You rarely ever solve them and you know financial recovery for the victim is highly unlikely.”

The victims in these cases are the school district, which is left to cover the repair bill, and students who can’t help but feel burned.

The school district says preventing the playground fires can be difficult. Often times, the fires happen during summer when there isn’t as much staff around. Gating the playgrounds off isn’t always an option since the play areas are used by the entire community.

Fire investigators are asking for the public’s help in solving these cases.

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