Student admits starting fires, expelled indefinitely

A fire in the Poulsbo Elementary School library May 22 forced the evacuation of the school — the second fire and evacuation in two days.  - Megan Stephenson / Herald
A fire in the Poulsbo Elementary School library May 22 forced the evacuation of the school — the second fire and evacuation in two days.
— image credit: Megan Stephenson / Herald

POULSBO — Poulsbo Police say a second-grade boy, either 7 or 8 years old, admitted  starting fires at Poulsbo Elementary School Tuesday and Wednesday.

Poulsbo Elementary was evacuated Wednesday for the second time in two days, after a student saw a couch in the school's library was on fire.

Poulsbo Fire and Poulsbo Police departments were dispatched at 12:10 p.m. Students were evacuated to the nearby sports field until they went to Poulsbo Middle School at about 12:30 p.m. There were no injuries to students, faculty or firefighters in either incident.

Deputy Chief Bob Wright said the school cooperated with the police investigation, and the students and faculty from the library were kept in a separate area from the rest of the school after it was evacuated. Wright said the boy admitted to officers he set both fires, and handed over the leftover pack of matches he used. Wright said he was then turned over to the custody of his mother.

Wright said he did not sit in on the interview, but it appeared the boy started the fires "out of boredom."

Wright said it is unlikely criminal charges will be filed; under state law, children under the age of 8 are presumed "incapable of committing a crime."

"There would have to be serious intent to do harm" to be charged, Wright said. "And I don't think that's the case."

The arson investigation has been turned over to the Kitsap County Fire Marshal.

"It's not a common occurrence, but it’s certainly happened in the past," Wright said of school arson.

Superintendent Patty Page said the student has been expelled for an indefinite period until he is deemed safe to be back at school. A student is expelled if the nature and circumstances of the violation warrants the harshness of the expulsion, according to district documents. The student violation or misconduct must be "exceptional" in order for a student to be expelled. An "exceptional" form of misconduct includes: assault or intentional behavior threatening or causing serious bodily harm, and possession or use of any incendiary device.

In the cases of "exceptional misconduct," a short- or long-term suspension may be given. The severity of the expulsion can be adjusted on a case-by-case basis. A student who violates the firearms provision, for example, is subject to a minimum of one calendar year expulsion.

North Kitsap School District spokeswoman Jenn Markaryan said the school is expected to be open Thursday, but the library will be closed until it is deemed suitable for reentry.

Poulsbo Elementary librarian Mary Payne said she was gathering the students in the library to go to lunch when a student alerted her to the fire. She said the back of the couch was on fire and flames were visible. The students "were out [of the library] within seconds," she said. Payne said she called for a fire extinguisher, thinking she could keep the fire under control. Another staff member had a garbage can full of water. However, staff soon realized they could not fight the fire. The sprinkler system went off in the library.

"[The students] had a great practice run yesterday," Payne said. "This is why we practice. And [the students] did great … We were ready and prepared."

The school evacuated near the end of the school day Tuesday when a fire was reported in a garbage can in a boys' bathroom. Poulsbo Fire crews were dispatched at 3:26 p.m.

Parents were able to pick up their children at Poulsbo Middle School, according to an email from the school to parents. A "family unification team" is at the main office of the middle school to help connect parents with their children. Buses were to pick up students at Poulsbo Middle School to transport students home.

All Poulsbo Elementary after-school activities were cancelled. Children in the M&M program will still meet in the portable at the elementary, the email from the school states.

"We are very proud of the manner in which our students, staff and our local law enforcement have handled the situation," the email reads.

Before the police interviews, Poulsbo Elementary Principal Claudia Alves said she "would think" the two incidents were related.

Wright also said at the time he believed the incidents were related and suspected an elementary school student.

Poulsbo Fire spokeswoman Jody Matson said the fire department has intervention programs to help stop juvenile fire-starters. Methods to intervene and stop fire starting include interviewing the student(s) and parents and talk to them about the consequences of starting fires.

She said she believed this incident was more serious, and the boy would first be referred to the Kitsap County Juvenile Services Department to speak with a counselor.

"It's usually a deeper issue anyway," Matson said of an action of arson. "It can be a cry for help." She added that a child his age should not have access to matches or a lighter.

— Herald staff Megan Stephenson, Kipp Robertson and Richard Walker worked on this report

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