Liberty City special-needs school grounded after burglars steal van

01/30/2014 4:04 PM

01/30/2014 5:11 PM

If there’s one thing that Michael Faine has learned in the 12 years he has run a small Liberty City private school that serves children with special needs and adults with disabilities it’s this: How to stretch a budget.

So when burglars broke in this month and stole the school’s 15-passenger van, computers, and DJ equipment, the loss hit hard.

“We are not a rich school,” said Faine, who does not charge tuition and relies on state and local funding for the Exceptional Development Corporation of South Florida. “We do what we have to to get by.”

Faine had to dip into his own pocket to buy new computers until the insurance money comes in. And while losing one of two vans has been tough, the hardest part to deal with is knowing the burglars ransacked the book room.

“They destroyed our books,” said Joel Simpkins, a ninth-grader who recently transferred from a public school because of the smaller classes and one-on-one attention. “I just don’t understand why they would do that. We need books to learn.”

On Jan. 20, while the school, at 991 NW 54th St., was shut down and many people in the neighborhood were at the Martin Luther King Jr. parade, someone opened the locked chain-link fence and entered the parking lot behind the school.

“We always keep the gate locked and the vans inside,” Faine said.

The burglars pried open the back door by its hinges and entered through the cafeteria, which is also used as a garage at night for the the vans. After going through the winding hallway with locked classroom doors and artwork on bulletin boards, the burglars kicked open several office doors, which since have been replaced.

In Faine’s office, the burglars managed to grab professional DJ equipment — including turntables and a mixer, valued at nearly $5,000 — used for school dances and other functions. In the process of lugging out the heavy equipment, Faine’s glass table was shattered. His computer and the computers in other offices were also taken.

“That’s information we are never going to get back,” said Ali McDowell, the assistant principal.

In a hallway between two offices, the burglars found a lock box, which holds the keys to classrooms and the school’s bay door and the vans. The classroom keys were left alone.

The burglars went into a small room in the cafeteria, throwing dozens of algebra, social studies, and reading books to the ground.

According to the police report, a school employee noticed a chain-link fence gate open during the parade and reported it to police.

“A walk-through by the officer revealed that the school had been broken into,” an officer wrote.

When Faine heard about the break-in he came to the school immediately. In the 12 years they had been on the main thoroughfare, he never had a problem.

Faine first opened the school to provide training and other programs for adults. Slowly, he began adding new programs for younger students including a McKay Scholarship Program, which allows students with disabilities to attend a school of their choice. The school also partnered with Miami-Dade County to offer an extended education program for 18- to 22-year-olds.

About 80 students are now in the school, not including the adults. Faine runs the school on $200,000 a year.

On Wednesday, a group of eight older students sat around their teacher, brushing up on math skills. The adults, who take up two classrooms, worked on practical life skills, including how to cook a simple meal and use a washer and dryer.

Meanwhile, the eighth- through 12th-graders worked independently in the computer room.

Yolande McKnight, who works as a school recruiter and has four children in the school, said her children thrive in the small-class setting.

When she saw her desk ransacked and the van gone she felt “completely violated.”

“Schools are sacred,” she said. She said it was hard to explain to the children how they wouldn’t be able to go anywhere or have a dance because of other peoples’ actions.

“They didn’t do anything wrong, but they are getting punished,” she said.

The vans are used to pick kids up from their homes and take them home. They are also used to go to a park for physical education and field trips.

Last week, the students were supposed to visit the courthouse as part of a government lesson that has been going on since November.

Tevin Pruett said he was disappointed when he learned he couldn’t go because there was no way to get there.

“What they did didn’t just affect the school,” he said. “It affected us.”

Faine said he is hoping the school’s insurance will help him to replace the van and get new equipment. He is also hoping to somehow scrape up the money for a new security system with cameras to protect the school.

“We are trying really hard to teach these kids who otherwise may have ended out on the street,” he said. “Our goal is to make them taxpayers, not tax burdens.”

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