‘Nothing left to steal at school — now the criminals have resorted to arson’

NOT MUCH LEFT: Bethelsdorp Comprehensive School principal Ralph Jacobus assesses the damage caused after a classroom was set alight.
Image: Riaan Marais

Vandalised facilities, a disintegrating structure and now blackened walls as a result of an alleged arson attack  — staff are at their wits’ end when it comes to maintaining the dignity of a long-neglected northern areas school.

Educators at Bethelsdorp Comprehensive School say they have lost count of how many times the school has been broken into or vandalised, with the latest incident occurring as recently as Thursday morning after parts of a classroom was set alight, destroying textbooks and valuable equipment.

The school has been plagued by break-ins in recent months — reporting no less than four burglaries in a single week in June 2020.

Principal Ralph Jacobus said they did not even bother reporting “the smaller incidents” any more.

In Thursday’s incident, security guards at the school heard a ruckus at one of the buildings near the back of the grounds, but upon investigation found no-one.

A few minutes later, while patrolling, a guard notice smoke coming from the building.

“He managed to use the fire hose to keep it under control until the fire department showed up.

“Luckily the fire was mostly confined to a small storeroom at the back of a class, otherwise we could have lost that whole block,” Jacobus said.

The classroom was used for grade 8 and 9 technology lessons, as well as engineering graphics and design for grades 10, 11 and 12.

When a Weekend Post team entered the classroom on Friday, the smell of burnt paper and plastic clung to the air.

At the back of the room, the walls and ceiling were blackened from the smoke, and the floor was covered with a layer of water left behind by the fire department.

Charred and soggy textbooks were strewn across the floor.

The only window not blackened by the smoke was broken, presumably by the culprits to gain entry to the building.

Jacobus said the school was waiting for the fire department to complete its report before it could open a case with the police.

“We have nothing left to steal, now the criminals have resorted to arson.

“I don’t think they will stop until there is nothing left of the school,” Jacobus said.

He said last year the school had reported eight break-ins where it suffered losses or damage.

“But we have had many more incidents.

“It does not matter if it’s holidays, or during the school term.

“We’ve even had incidents while students were writing exams and staff were on the premises.

“These criminals are just too brazen,” Jacobus said.

In a flurry of incidents last year, computers were stolen from admin rooms, lights ripped out of the ceilings in some classes, and in other incidents even the ceiling boards were taken.

All these damages were repaired at the end of the school year, only for the lights and equipment to be stolen again weeks later.

The principal suspects current or former pupils are behind the incidents, saying the culprits seem to know where to break in to find items of value.

The school has about 1,200 pupils.

Education department spokesperson Malibongwe Mtima said schools submitted reports within the first few weeks of schools reopening, detailing any damages or losses suffered during the holidays.

“Once these reports have been submitted the department sends someone to assess the damage, then a plan can be put in place to repair the damage.”

He said each school was allocated a budget, which was accompanied by a plan detailing the proposed use of the funds.

If damages were not covered by the allocated budget, the school could approach the district office and submit a request for additional funding to cover the costs.

Depending on the total cost of the damage, the request could be escalated to the provincial education department, or the national department.

Jacobus has been the principal at Bethelsdorp Comprehensive School for three years, but started there as a teacher in 1983.

It is also his alma mater.

“This used to be one of the top schools in the area. But the decay in the community surrounding the school has now spilt over into the school.

“It breaks my heart to see what has become of the school, and I cannot image where it will end,” he said.

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