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Program gives kids who set fires a second chance

June 21, 1999|By MARLO BARNHART

As a teacher, John Hersh's goal is never to see his students again.

He teaches the Juvenile Fire Safety program sponsored by the Hagerstown Fire Department. The students all have set fires and have one chance to avoid serious consequences of their acts.

That one chance is Hersh's school.

Recently 10 boys ages 8 to 14 attended a two-hour session at Children's Village of Washington County.

"All but two of these boys have been through the Children's Village program," said Mike Weller, public fire educator in Hagerstown. The program focuses on fire safety.

He told the boys that he wasn't mad at them for what they had done but was disappointed.

There was some disappointment and anger among parents who attended with their sons.

In Maryland, parents are liable for up to $5,000 worth of damages caused by delinquent activities of their children.

Weller said he was glad to see the parents, whether they were ordered to attend or came voluntarily, because that means they're aware their sons have a problem with fire that needs to be addressed.

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"The adult response to a child's first fire is a big factor in whether there is ever a second fire," Weller said.

One boy admitted starting a fire on his back porch.

Another said he threw a sparkler that hit an electrical wire and caused some damage and scared his neighbors.

Several admitted setting paper on fire. Two built small fires in the woods. One boy started his fire in a church but there was little damage.

Fireworks violations brought others to the school.

One fire caused $1,000 damage, which the boy's father had to pay.

"How many of you have set a fire more than once?" Weller asked.

The answer ranged from just once to five or six times. Many of the parents were shocked to learn their sons had been setting fires for a long time.

The school has been in existence for 12 years.

"As of June 1, 1999, we've had 30 juvenile arrests," 21 for arson, Hersh said.

In all of 1998, there were 39 arsons in Hagerstown, 22 of which were set by youngsters under 18.

"Many people think it's easy to set a fire and get away with it," Weller said. But clues are left behind.

More than 1,200 people have attended the school and only five became repeat offenders, Hersh said.

"Setting a fire can be a cry for help, the result of domestic activity or just vandalism," Hersh said.

Normal curiosity must be met with education, he said.

The youngsters and their parents watched a video about arson, which included a segment on a fire started when two children, ages 4 and 5, were playing with matches.

A tour of "The Power of Fire" house capped off the evening and homework was assigned.

Each child was asked to answer questions about why they set a fire, check his home for fire safety, write a report and mail it back to Hersh.

"Everybody makes mistakes," Hersh said. "But life is about choices and we want these children to make good choices."

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