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Arson destroys playground for 2nd time
San Joaquin County Office of Education Public Information Officer Jacqueline Ratto, Special Education Division Director Brandi Brunni, center, and Special Education Director I Shelly Garrett talk about the future of the playground equipment at John McFall School. - photo by HIME ROMERO

All that remains of the preschool playground at George McFall School is a small pile of twisted metal and a sprawling pile of plastic ash.

Covered by an oversized black tarp that’s anchored by thick metal spikes and surrounded by a chain-link fence, the one-time focal point of the school’s outdoor activities – something that plays heavily into the curriculum of students with developmental disabilities – was reduced to a smoldering pile after it suspiciously went up in flames Monday evening.

But denying the predominantly autistic students – seven of the nine classes that the San Joaquin County Offices of Education provides are for students on the autism spectrum – the chance to spend time on the playground is only one of the wounds opened up with the destruction of the playground equipment.

Brandie Brunni, the Divisional Director of Special Education for SJCOE, said she still remembers when the other playground – reserved for older students was similarly burnt to the ground six years ago.

The culprit was never caught.

“It breaks my heart to stand here and see this – to think that somebody was so cruel,” she said. “Why somebody would limit the access to disabled students is beyond me. It just isn’t fair to them.”

Just last summer McFall learned it had received the funding for a California Recycle grant that would allow the installation of special bark on each of the playgrounds. The bark makes it easier for wheelchairs to roll onto and off of the playground for those with mobility issues.

Problems, however, were never too far from the good news that seemed to come.

With the Tidewater Bikeway running right behind the school, only a short chain-link fence – which seems even shorter when compared to the elevated bike path – served as the school’s eastern boundary.

It wouldn’t be uncommon, Brunni said, to find graffiti on both the playground equipment and the buildings. Beer bottles – some broken – have been found in the grassy areas behind the play equipment. And all of that, she said, came before the recent push towards school safety in the wake of the school shooting in Newtown, CT.

“It was such a beautiful playground,” Brunni said. “But we’ve had to limit the amount of access because of unfortunate circumstances – the graffiti and the bottles and things like that.

“The vandalism and things like that really takes away from the students. They’re the ones that lose out.”

And determining where to go next, and how to get there, isn’t going to be figured out overnight.

According to SJCOE Public Affairs Director Jacqueline Ratto, work is already underway to determine how much of the equipment replacement cost would be covered under their insurance policy, and how much that deductible would be.

Since it’s the second major incident that has occurred at the school in the last six years, figuring out how to secure the campus after-hours will also be something that needs to be looked at.

“We have to figure out what we can do to make sure that something like this doesn’t happen again,” Ratto said. “Whether we need to make the fence higher or something else – it’s the second time this has happened and it disrupts things for the kids.”