Their first indication that something terrible had happened inside White Bluff Elementary School occurred on a normal Monday morning when parents, students and staff noticed police cars outside the campus on Savannah's Southside.
As they entered the main building, staff directed them not to go into their classrooms, but to remain in the main corridor near the administration office. "Something is wrong,'' they were told.
Officials, who had witnessed the tragic story of an assault on education, literacy and technology, wanted to protect the youngsters.
Authorities remain clueless about why the suspects had ripped through the Depression-style glass doors, thick and seemingly unbreakable, into Wings I, II and III and the Media Center.
The vandals left fear in the hearts of staff and parents who later helped to clean up the glass strewn in the corridors and to wipe clean nearly every book in the media center that had been sprayed with chemicals from fire extinguishers.
Sometime between Friday, March 22 and Monday, March 25, the vandals violently forced themselves inside three buildings with the apparent intent of destroying the school's literacy computer lab, its vice principal's office, its media center and vending machines.
The culprits — believed to be juveniles — got away without capture or without identification. They used the school's fire extinguishers and possibly a hammer as weapons as they systematically destroyed thousands of dollars worth of computers, desks, chairs, books and bookshelves, said Chief Ulysses O. Bryant Jr., who added that he's not seen such an act of vandalism in his 38 years of service.
Bryant described the damage as a "war zone."
The incident, which will be placed on the district's school safety committee's agenda, resulted in an estimated $10,000 in damage at a school already stressed for educational funding.
The incident has revealed vulnerabilities in the Savannah-Chatham County Public School system's alarm, security and video surveillance systems. None of the alarms at the school or the district office on Bull Street were alerted when the outside doors went ajar during the weekend incident.
Officials said there were no cameras in place to record the incident.
The damage was extensive in places that elementary school students consider sacred. The vandals left blood in the media center — blood that will be considered criminal evidence from the break-in.
The blood was found in an area where the children regularly sit on a multi-colored "ABC, 123" rug on the floor during their reading time.
School officials held those reading sessions last week in the gymnasium and the cafeteria to create normalcy in the educational process until officials clean and restore the media center.
An oversized bookshelf was overturned at the doorway of the media center. The suspects sprayed chemicals from the fire extinguishers on scores of library books and inside the classroom corridors.
An interactive chalk board in a classroom that costs thousands of dollars was defaced with profanity.
The assault became increasingly violent and costly in the literary lab, where 28 of the 30 computer stations were smashed with hammers or hard objects or sprayed with paint.
Across the hall in the vice principal's office there was a hole in the wall. Her crystal lamp and clock were broken and her computer terminal and monitor were also destroyed.
"My personal pictures were thrown and stomped on the floor,'' said Vice Principal Julie Nichols.
Nichols, an administrator who has worked in education for 20 years, said she was upset by the extent of the vandalisms. But she took pause as she noticed that none of the work on display created by White Bluff elementary students had been touched.
"They didn't take anything,'' Nichols said. "I truly believe that they were angry at people and not at the school,'' she said of the vandals.
Chief Bryant urged the public during a press conference to reveal the names of the suspects. Someone must know who committed the crimes, especially those injured when the multiple panes of glass were broken, he said.
Parents and staff cleaned up the mess left behind. They worked overtime with buckets, mops and brooms to remove the debris, PTA officials said.
The lasting impact of the crime was witnessed by members of the PTA and staff who said they tried to shield children from seeing the results of the violent assault, but couldn't help but notice something was awry.
The adults recalled sighs of relief when the children were allowed to re-enter their classrooms that were untouched.
The recent incident of vandalism at White Bluffs Elementary School is reminiscent of a similar incident two years ago at Pulaski Elementary.
No one was arrested in that case, officials said.
CrimeStoppers offers a $2,500 reward to anyone with information leading to an arrest. The public is urged to call CrimeStoppers of Savannah at (912) 234-2020 or the school system's campus police at (912) 395-5536 with information.
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