Schools launch efforts to repair vandalized playgrounds

Arson at two Southwest schools destroyed thousands of dollars in slides and other equipment

Recess lost some of its revelry this year for Lyndale Community School first grader Olivia Bordon.

The school’s largest slide, a twisty tube that wound down from the playground’s highest point, was destroyed by arson in late June along with thousands of dollars worth of other equipment. Olivia wants the pride of the playground back.

“I love the slide and I just miss it because there’s just a big yellow board there and that equipment just seems so no fun,” she said.

Lyndale was one of two Southwest schools to have playground equipment destroyed by arson this year. A fire set in September at the Bryn Mawr Community School playground wrecked a slide there, too. Collective damage at both sites is estimated in the tens of thousands of dollars — roughly $8,000 for the Lyndale slide alone.

With the school district strapped for cash, Lyndale and Bryn Mawr administrators are leading efforts to repair their playgrounds, reaching out to neighborhood groups and community members for help. Meanwhile, the district is looking at ways to prevent future vandalism.

“It’s just really an unfortunate thing,” said Craig Vana, executive director for emergency management and safety and security for Minneapolis Public Schools. “That equipment is so expensive now because of the safety standards that have to be met.”

Vana said the district doesn’t have insurance to cover playground damage and it has no budget set aside for the replacement of playground equipment, so it relies heavily on fundraising from parents and community members in such situations. Though graffiti and minor damage is common at some playgrounds, arson is unusual, he said.

Both the Lyndale and Bryn Mawr fires appeared to be started with an accelerant, Vana said, allowing the flames to spread quickly and grow fierce enough to melt heavy-duty plastic. At Lyndale, the playground’s rubber-chip groundcover burned and had to be replaced. A second, smaller slide and a zip-line piece of equipment were also damaged there.

The burnt equipment was removed for safety reasons and boards were placed over the slide entrances.

Vana, who assessed both the Lyndale and Bryn Mawr sites after the fires, said the district is looking into improved lighting and the possibility of outdoor cameras — portable ones that could be moved throughout the district as needed. But finding the funds for those enhancements wouldn’t be easy, he said.

Lyndale principal Ossie Brooks-Brooks-James said her school was working with the Lyndale Neighborhood Association on getting a grant for lighting improvements. And to take care of playground repairs, the school launched a fundraising effort this month called Pennies for the Playground.

A large change-donation bin is setup in the school and parents are distributing collection cans to area businesses. Brooks-James said the hope is to raise at least enough money to replace the slide, which her students have buzzed about since the start of the year.

“Some have told me that maybe they could sell candy to get the money,” she said. “Some of them have proposed to me that maybe they could sell gift wrap paper to get the money. Some have told me that they would be willing to give up part of their allowance.”

Jenny Bordon, a member of the Lyndale Parent Teacher Organization, said getting students involved in the fundraising effort was a priority.

“We want to get the kids involved, so they feel some ownership in this,” she said.

In Bryn Mawr, the local neighborhood association has pledged to help pay for at least some of the repairs, said parent and Bryn Mawr Neighborhood Association board member Lynda Shaheen. Money will come from the organization’s Neighborhood Revitalization Program funds.

“The playground is something that benefits not just the school, but the community as well,” Shaheen said.    

Bryn Mawr principal Renee Montague said she requested that her school police officers step up patrols when no one is on-site. She said the school might also start its own fundraising drive to get the playground back in shape for students this year.  

“It’s disappointing,” Montague said. “They’re sad about it, heartbroken about this.”

Sgt. Sean McKenna, who oversees the Minneapolis Police Department’s arson unit, said the two fires don’t appear to be related. A neighbor spotted the Lyndale fire around 11:30 p.m. on a Tuesday after hearing fireworks in the area. A passerby reported the Bryn Mawr fire at 1 a.m. on a Saturday.

Without suspect descriptions or clues in either incident, finding who committed the arsons is unlikely, McKenna said. But he urged anyone with information to call the arson hotline at 1-800-723-2020. A $2,500 reward is offered for information that leads to an arrest and conviction.

Police and school administrators don’t think the culprits are students at the schools. From what Brooks-James has heard about the slide at Lyndale, she thinks that’s unlikely.

“They want it back,” Brooks-James said. “And they want to know what they can do to get it back.”