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Another senior prank?

By Dale Rodebaugh , Emery Cowan Herald staff writers

Durango School District 9-R classes were canceled Monday because vandals immobilized the district’s fleet of buses by removing valve stems from tires.

All schools will be in session today.

“It was a prank – a senseless prank,” Interim District Superintendent Bill Esterbrook said Monday. “It was vandalism.”

The vandals deflated the tires of almost 40 district vehicles, including 31 school buses. Police believe the incident occurred shortly before 2:54 a.m. Monday, which is when cleaning crews arrived at the transportation facility.

The worker who reported the crime said he could still hear air leaking from some of the tires.

Tire marks suggest the vandals, who administrators believe were most likely students, drove onto a wide, terraced wall behind the bus barn and easily hopped the fence into the facility.

Police investigators believe three students carried out the job judging from footprints around the scene, said Kathy Gonzales, the administrative assistant for the district’s transportation department. No security cameras are on the premises, and lighting is poor near the back of the building where the vandals entered, Gonzales said.

The bus barn is adjacent to Colorado Highway 3 south of Durango.

When the tires were deflated, the weight of the vehicles broke the seal between the tires and the rims. Repairing the tires requires the district to raise the buses using a jack, reinflate the tires and reseal them, Gonzales said. Each bus takes about 45 minutes to repair, she said. District mechanics also planned to check the bus engines and take them for a test drive before they were approved to carry students again.

“The Transportation Department performed impressively and has cleared all buses to roll (Tuesday) morning,” Esterbrook said.

The Colorado Department of Transportation, the city of Durango and Bonds Construction sent workers and/or equipment to help.

The cost of reinflating the tires and replacing valve caps is negligible. Esterbrook said he is far more concerned with the cost and inconvenience to parents who had to rearrange their schedules or take off work to take care of their children. The effects would ripple out to employers as well, he said.

Although the AlertNow message system theoretically reaches all families, there were reports that students whose parents had already left for work were left waiting at bus stops.

About one-third of the district’s 4,200 students ride the bus to school everyday.

Monday’s prank was almost identical to one that happened in Crosby, Texas. Last month five students cut about 100 tire valve stems on almost 60 school district buses.

The last major prank in the district also was discovered on a Monday morning. Early arrivals at Durango High School on May 16, 2011, found the school’s commons area filled with more than 30 broken bales of hay.

The building was evacuated before the school day began. No one was allowed inside because of concerns about dust and mold spores.

A professional hazardous-materials team was called in to clean the mess. The total cost of cleaning and air-quality testing was $200,000. The district was insured but had a deductible.

Esterbrook declined to speculate about whether Monday’s vandalism was a senior prank.

The type of prank made it hard to think it wasn’t carried out by seniors, said Jimmi and Sierra Ogden. The sisters, one an eighth-grader and one a high school sophomore, were planning to hang out with friends at the Durango Community Recreation Center during their unexpected day off.

The district is working with the Durango Police Department to increase security around Durango High School from now until school ends, Esterbrook said.

Police also suspect a prank. This is about the time of year when some students begin thinking about ways to disrupt school without causing damage, said Capt. Dan Shry, with the Durango Police Department.

He declined to comment on evidence police have collected that might help identify suspects.

“We’ve got some stuff, but I can’t really give that away right now, because it’s still ongoing,” Shry said.

If police identify suspects, it is likely they’ll be charged with trespassing and criminal tampering, he said.

ecowan@durangoherald.com

Herald Staff Writer Shane Benjamin contributed to this story.

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