Arson dishonors Richmond school namesake

June 14, 2011 6:32:48 PM PDT
Arson investigators are looking for whoever set a school on fire in the East Bay, while educators are worried about why this keeps happening in the district. The latest fire broke out last night at King Elementary, which is on South 39th Street. The damage inside is considerable.

On the surface, this is a school fire of suspicious origin, but what makes this one different, is that it is not a first for the district. It happened in a district that can ill afford it. Last year, the West Contra Costa County School District laid off 82 people, cut $15 million from its budget, and now it has to pay for the fire damage.

If he were still alive and in Richmond Tuesday morning, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., would not be pleased.

"I can tell you right now that they don't know the history and they don't want to know," said school employee Carl Milton.

The Richmond Fire Department says that when the Martin Luther King Elementary burned Monday night, someone did it on purpose.

"Well the crew's initial response [was that] it looks like there were multiple starts," said Merlin Turner from the Richmond Fire Department.

West Contra Costa County school board president Charles Ramsey is concerned by a trend.

"We had a fire at DeAnza, we had a fire at Crespi, and we had a fire at Coronado. So, this is the fourth fire and we're really concerned about the outbreak in the last just year and a half," said school board president Charles Ramsey.

The only partially saving grace was that Martin Luther King Elementary had closed for good, replaced next year by a new campus next door, but much of the supplies and furniture that burned would have been the guts of it.

Milton, who helped with the clean-up on Tuesday, attended the school as a kid. He's tired of these fires.

"Aw, you don't get used to it, you get immune to it because it constantly keeps happening all over the town," said Milton.

That is not the case for teacher Alva Carruthers; she isn't used to it.

"My heart hurts," said Carruthers. Tuesday morning, she rescued a priceless, historic quilt from these ruins. As she pulled it out from a charred cabinet she said, "Oh my God, it's OK."

But not much more of anything else survived the fire. If Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., stood for hope, this is the contrast, filled with frustration and despair.

"This is not what Dr. King stood for. This is not what he stood for at all," said Carruthers. When asked why didn't the arsonists understand that, she replied, "They have mental chains on them. They blame everybody for things that go wrong. Step up to the plate, people. This is not what you do, when all we have is the children and we're trying to educate them."

Ramsey also said, "This is discouraging. It takes away from programs, services, textbooks, furniture, but we can't give up. We need to send the right message to our kids."

The fire department continues to investigate this fire. There will be an emergency board meeting dealing with this loss on Tuesday night.

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