There have been an ongoing series of break-ins at the Columbia High School in recent years, but Thursday night's burglaries at all three White Salmon schools may represent an escalation.
Sometime late Thursday night or early Friday morning, Whitson Elementary School, Henkle Middle School, and Columbia High School were targeted.
"It happened sometime during the night, and was discovered first thing Friday morning," explained Klickitat County Sheriff Chris Mace.
According to White Salmon Valley School District Superintendent Dale Palmer, the thief or thieves were not interested in computers, cameras, or other expensive merchandise.
"Somebody was after some quick cash," Palmer said. "They were not after equipment."
Although school officials and teachers were still tallying up the losses, Palmer said it appeared that approximately $1,700 was taken from the three schools, along with one digital camera.
Palmer described the weekend burglaries at the schools as follows:
Whitson Elementary School: Access was apparently gained through the health room, where a screen was taken off and a window pried open. Cupboards were rummaged, and sheetrock was knocked out in a effort to get into the school's fireproof vault. Approximately $30 in cash was taken. Although the principal's office was entered, cameras and laptops in there were not taken; no other equipment, supplies, or materials had been stolen.
Henkle Middle School: Access was gained through the Learning Resource Center office. Cash boxes from the concession stand from the previous night's middle school football game were emptied, and $312.85 was stolen. A small amount of lunch money was taken from the office.
Columbia High School: Unclear how access was gained into the school, as there were no broken widows or doors. Once inside the school, access to the main office was gained by breaking a window. In the office, cupboard doors were pried open, and, as was the case in the last break-in at the high school, the school's vault was cut open. This time, a grinder was used to cut off the safe's hinges. Stolen from the safe was about $200 of petty cash, about $800 from cash boxes ready for Friday night's football game at CHS, $300 in Future Business Leaders of America funds, and a small amount of lunch money. Also, a digital camera was taken.
Mace said this series of break-ins fit the general profile of earlier incidents at the high school.
"It was just a cash run again," Mace said. "It was pretty consistent with the other break-ins. We've got a good idea who's doing this, but getting enough evidence to prove it is the problem."
Palmer pointed out that the CHS vault, heavily damaged after the April 10 break-in at the high school, had recently been replaced at a cost of $12,000. Now it will need to be replaced or repaired again.
Palmer said there was no easy way around keeping some cash at the school.
"We have to have cash on hand when we're having athletic events," he explained.
Because there have been several previous break-ins, the school has been working to purchase some type of alarm system to prevent further losses. However, that system is not yet in place.
"We've gone out to bid for a security system, but have not received bids back. We're waiting for bids from the companies," Palmer said. "We need at least three bids."
Mace encouraged the school to get the alarm system in place.
"They can't keep doing this, re-keying the doors and replacing windows -- that's got to be expensive. It sounds like that project was moving forward, and it's unfortunate it hasn't gotten in there yet," Mace said.
Palmer estimated that it would cost about $30,000-$40,000 to set up an alarm system at the high school.
"Now, do we need to do all three buildings? Where does that money come from?" Palmer said.
Efforts of the school district to raise money for a high school alarm system have been relatively successful, with $10,250 donated to date.
Mace suggested that perhaps the Klickitat County Economic Development Authority could contribute some money for the school through the landfill fund program.
"Until the school can get an alarm system up, maybe the neighbors and anyone there using the track or other facilities will report any unusual activity," Mace added. "If you see something suspicious, please report it. It's everybody's school. If everybody helps watch out for the school, maybe we can get some of this stopped and protect the community's interest."
Palmer noted that the schools have been most susceptible to burglaries during holiday periods and at spring break.
"We're hoping to have a system ready by Christmas, because up to now they've been hitting us over the holidays. Last night was a deviation from that. Obviously, we need to get it in as soon as possible."
Palmer asked that anyone wanting to help with funds for an alarm system contact the school district office at 493-1500.
"We'll continue to work on a security system," Palmer said. "I'm not sure where we'll find the money at this point, but we can't afford not to have it."
Other serious burglaries at the high school recently include the following:
April 10, 2005: During the school's spring break, thieves broke windows to get into classrooms and offices at CHS. Computers, cameras, and projectors were stolen. An acetylene torch was taken from the metal shop and used to cut open the safe. Including the cost of the damages from all the breakage and the expense of replacing the safe, the incident cost the school more than $50,000.
April 7, 2004: Also during spring break, classrooms at CHS were broken in to. Televisions, VCRs, computers, a cell phone, digital cameras, global positioning systems, and a camcorder were stolen. The value of the stolen goods was pegged at approximately $5,000.
Jan. 8, 2004: Over the Christmas/New Year's break, CHS suffered a break-in of a classroom. Laptop computers and a photo-negative scanner were stolen. The equipment was valued at $11,000.
Some teachers and staff members were visibly shaken by the latest break-in.
"There are a lot of long faces," Palmer said. "This is a violation, and we take it to heart. It's our space, it's where we work and it's close to our hearts. We feel violated. And with all three schools hit, it just doesn't give you a good feeling."
Palmer called for help from the public in catching those responsible for the crimes.
"If anybody has any knowledge, we or the Klickitat County Sheriff's Office or the Bingen-White Salmon Police Department would like to hear from them," Palmer said. "Any leads would be appreciated."
Mace said the officers handling the case are KCSO Sgt. Erik Anderson and Deputy Jay Johnston. Anyone with information about the burglaries can call either of them at (509) 773-4545.