String of vandalism and break-ins plague campus over summer, continue into school year

September 16, 2020 — by Anouk Yeh

MacBook carts in the library were ransacked by a group of thieves in the middle of the night.

Sophisticated ring of thieves target SHS, other schools, stealing thousands of dollars in computers and even taking a safe from the main office.

School officials have dealt with a myriad of security issues in the past few months during the campus closure, ranging from serious break-ins to confrontations with adults who refuse to leave. 

The most serious incident involved a group of thieves who broke into both the library and main office late at night in June, taking thousands of dollars worth of technology and cash. The group had entered both buildings by smashing through the side windows of the buildings. Judging from the way they bypassed building security systems, Torrens said the group had previous experience with break-ins.

“They knew exactly what they were looking for,” he said. “In the library, they went past all the ChromeBooks that were just laid out and headed directly for the Apple products.”

In addition to taking 20 MacBooks from the library, they also bypassed a faulty alarm system in the main office and stole a safe from the administration building. Torrens said that the safe contained hundreds of dollars in cash that the school reserved for club fundraisers and multiple checks for thousands of dollars. 

Sheriff’s deputies informed the administration that Saratoga High wasn’t the only school that the group broke into over the summer. 

Two weeks prior to the incident at SHS, officials think the same group broke into Saratoga Elementary and pillaged that school’s technology. Three weeks later, another undisclosed local high school was raided in the exact same way. In total, there were about a dozen schools in Santa Clara County  burglarized over the summer, all apparently by the same sophisticated group.

In every break-in, the group’s procedure was the same: They would head straight for the campus’ library, try to disable the alarm system and then take all laptops and computers.

Since Saratoga High did have faults in its alarm system, the security company that the school contracts with helped the school buy back some of its lost technology, and insurance covered the rest of the lost property and damages, Torrens said. The administration was also able to fix the library and office alarm systems and obtain a new safe, but members of the group have not been identified or arrested.

In addition to the break-in over the summer, the administration has also had to deal with a range of more annoying issues, including students going onto the school’s easily accessible flat roofs. 

Over the summer, it was not uncommon for assistant principal Matt Torrens to patrol campus checking for students violating the campus ban. Every day around 4 or 5 p.m., Torrens would leave his office and scout around the school. Sometimes he had to herd students off the campus rooftops.

“In midsummer, we started noticing that kids were climbing up the roof and breaking brackets on the wall,” Torrens said. “We had SHS kids, Redwood kids, elementary age kids, graduates, skateboarders and even ASB officers on the roof.”

In one instance, a group climbed onto the roof of the English office and tried to get in the room through a ceiling window, breaking off the hinges in the process. Torrens said that since most classrooms’ heating, air conditioning and ventilation systems are attached to the roof, the students ended up damaging the airflow system of the room in addition to the window itself.

Despite this incident, Torrens described the majority of rooftop shenanigans as innocent activities, usually involving students hanging out with friends or taking sunset pictures for Instagram. After the administration sent out an email on July 6 about students being prohibited from climbing school buildings, the rooftop visits subsided.

Torrens said that in terms of destruction and vandalism, most of the damage the campus sustained over the summer was from “people outside of our community who weren’t respecting our school.” 

While the administration has now opened the campus during certain hours for students to use the basketball courts and the fields, during the summer when the campus was fully closed, they had trouble with keeping adults from using the facilities, some of whom would yell at custodians, Torrens said.

Ercument Gurleroglu, also known as Archer, is a longtime custodian who worked on campus maintenance over the summer. Due to the school’s summer closure and social-distancing protocols, Gurleroglu’s role has also been unofficially expanded into campus watch, which involves shooing people off campus. Like Torrens, he has had plenty of experiences with community members refusing to leave campus. 

“For me, the hardest part is kicking kids out of the outside basketball courts because the students on the courts don’t think the virus is coming to them,” Gurleroglu said. “They need to know they can carry the virus to another friend or spread the virus to their mom, dad or any relative at home.”

But Gurleroglu said that the majority of people he had to kick off campus weren’t students, but parents and adults.

“I try my best to keep the campus healthy, safe and secure, but some adults refuse to leave the school and want to enter the campus even when it is closed,” Gurleroglu said. “They told me, ‘We pay taxes and this is public school,’ and they said they deserved access to campus.”

Torrens said that a lot of the time, community members who live around the school feel entitled to access the campus because of its usual status as a public facility. He even recalled an incident where he had to “firmly tell” a former student to leave campus after the alum challenged the custodian to “‘call Mr. Torrens down here.’”

Despite all of these struggles, Torrens said that he wanted to make it clear that the majority of people he and Gurleroglu found on campus were not SHS students.

“Ninety-nine percent of the people we kick out of our campus don't go to school here,” Torrens said. “It's usually the kids who go to private schools and kids who go to other schools. It's people outside of our community who aren't respecting our school, and I think it's important for our kids to realize that.”

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