Police have charged an 11-year-old Brookfield boy with aggravated arson, saying he set a fire in a second-floor bathroom at S.E. Gross Middle School on Nov. 30, which prompted the evacuation of the building and caused “significant” damage.
The boy appeared in front of Cook County juvenile authorities on Dec. 2, police said. He will appear again in juvenile court in January.
Meanwhile, the boy has been suspended from the school for 10 days, said District 95 Superintendent Mark Kuzniewski. The school board is reviewing the case and is expected to make a decision regarding the student’s future at the school.
“The school board will take some level of action,” Kuzniewski said, “from nothing up to expulsion for two years.”
The damage to the school could have been worse, said Kuzniewski, if not for the fact that an off-duty LaGrange firefighter was on the second floor at a CPR class for coaches at the time the fire started, just before 9:30 a.m.
He said the firefighter grabbed a fire extinguisher from the hallway and put out the fire inside the bathroom. Black smoke billowed from the bathroom and into the second-floor hallway, Kuzniewski said.
At the same time, a student who had noticed smoke coming from the bathroom alerted a teacher who was calling 911 just as the building’s fire alarm sounded.
“Black soot resin stretched down 80 percent of the second floor,” Kuzniewski said.
While fire damage was contained within the bathroom – the bathroom stall partition and a portion of the floor tile – smoke not only blanketed the second floor, but also reached the third floor of the school through a vent.
Kuzniewski said tests done on the bathroom floor tile burned in the fire indicated no presence of asbestos.
“If we had to wait six or seven more minutes for firefighters to arrive and get their gear up there, the amount of damage could have been more than it already was,” Kuzniewski said. “By our good fortune, we had someone in the building with experience who saved extensive damage to the building.”
Students were evacuated to a church across the street from the school and later released to their parents.
Representatives from the school district’s insurance company arrived at the scene within an hour or two, Kuzniewski said, and a cleanup crew of more than two dozen people spent the rest of the day cleaning the building, including hallways and classrooms damaged by smoke.
The cost of replacing damaged bathroom items and the cleanup effort, Kuzniewski said, was estimated at $75,000 to $100,000.
The cleanup was finished by 10 p.m. on Nov. 30, and the school was in session the following day. The bathroom where the fire started is off limits until repairs there are complete.
Kuzniewski said the fire started when the boy lit two rolls of toilet paper inside a plastic dispenser on the wall of a bathroom stall. He also reportedly lit a third roll of toilet paper lying loose in the adjacent stall.
While students were being held across the street inside the church, school officials quickly identified a suspect, Kuzniewski said.
“Very early we were able to identify a small group of students who were in the hallway when the alarm went off,” Kuzniewski said. “While interviewing a small number of students, one of them confessed.”
No other students knew about the origin of the fire, Kuzniewski said.
“Fortunately we were able to quickly get the students, have the conversations and settle the issue immediately.”