Teen girls sentenced for setting school fire — (The Canton Repository)

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The Canton Repository

Saturday, December 4, 2004

By DAVE SERENO Repository assistant city editor

CANTON  –  As a former firefighter, Judge Jim James knows how damaging and deadly a fire can be.

He let the two 14-year-old girls responsible for a $60,000 fire at Jackson Middle School know how serious their actions were and how it could have been worse.

The pair lost their freedom following a hearing Friday in Stark County Family Court when the judge had them taken into custody and put into the county?s juvenile detention system.

Each girl was convicted of a juvenile count of aggravated arson, a charge that could have sent them to juvenile prison.

The Repository does not usually name juvenile crime offenders or suspects younger than 15.

One girl, then 13, used a lighter to set several fires Aug. 26 inside the school at 7355 Mudbrook Ave. NW. A football team event was going on at the time. The other girl did not light anything but did not stop her friend, James said.

The blaze forced Jackson Local officials to cancel school the following day.

The girl who started the fires had started taking anti-depressants just three weeks earlier, according to her attorney, Bradley Iams. Such drugs have caused concern and prompted warnings about the effects on children, he said.

A psychiatrist testified Friday that he felt the girl actually suffers from a bipolar disorder and that she was likely affected by the drugs.

“There’s a direct correlation between the medicine and what happened,” Iams said. “I’m not saying that?s what caused it, but you can’t ignore it.”

The girl tearfully apologized in court.

James said he felt an indefinite stay at a residential treatment center within the Multi-County Juvenile Attention Center was a better option, considering their young age and newly surfaced concerns at the state’s only juvenile prison for girls.

The director of the Ohio Department of Youth Services resigned this week amid reports of sexual assault, beatings and other problems at the girls? prison.

“Frankly, I really struggled with this case because I was so concerned about the seriousness of the offense,” said James, a member of Magnolia’s volunteer fire department for 18 years.

“In reality, they?ll probably spend as much time if not more (locked up) than if they went to DYS.”

The girls must complete the residential program, which usually lasts about six months but can run up to a year. They then will be put on probation.

James suspended a juvenile prison term. It could be imposed if they don?t following James? orders.

The girls must serve half of their community service hours ? 200 total for the one with the lighter and 100 for the other ? at a hospital burn unit, and complete a fire counseling program.

They also must repay $2,500 each to cover the school district?s insurance deductible.

Principal Gary Wenning said fire caused about $60,000 damage. Several rooms remained vacant for about a month until repairs could be made.

You can reach Repository Assistant City Editor Dave Sereno at (330) 580-8317 or e-mail:  dave.sereno@cantonrep.com