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Thieves target nonprofit Santa Rosa school

Published: Sunday, December 30, 2012 at 8:52 p.m.
Last Modified: Monday, December 31, 2012 at 7:14 a.m.

A small, nonprofit school was burglarized over the holiday break with thieves making off with computers, cash, paychecks and the school's minivan, school officials said Sunday.

The intruder or intruders entered through a second-story window, likely on Dec. 23, by picking away the putty that secured a plexiglass window, said New Horizon School & Learning Center founder and director Marianne McCarthy Campbell. Motion detectors were believed to have been disabled.

"It's so depressing," she said.

The school, located in a converted house on Third Street in Santa Rosa, serves 17 full-time students, many with learning disabilities who have failed to thrive on traditional campuses. An additional 12 students are served by programs at offsite locations.

The burglars found a cache of keys and broke many in locks as they attempted to break into filing cabinets and drawers, school officials said.

"The keys were all over the place," said Karen Schoeman, the school's administrative secretary, who discovered the theft Wednesday.

Musical instruments were pulled from their cases and cabinets and her desk had been rifled through, she said.

"As I looked further, I saw much more of a mess everywhere," she said.

The stolen computers were loaded with software with voice recorders designed to help children with dyslexia or other communication difficulties craft papers and print reports.

The theft totaled about $35,000, Campbell said, but a key loss is the school's vehicle, a van purchased new nine years ago.

The 2003 gold Honda Odyssey minivan was used to take students on field trips, classes, exercise sessions and other errands. The van was affixed with a faded bumper sticker reading "Give Peace A Chance."

"I know it doesn't mean anything to anybody, but it means a lot to us," Campbell said of the vehicle. "That is really irreplaceable to us. I don't know where we would come up with $30,000."

Campbell fears the intruder or intruders may have been familiar with the school's layout.

"It was just too obvious that they knew where the office was," she said. "I think they have been here before."

School officials have been working with Exchange Bank and their credit card companies to cancel checks and disable other accounts to which the thieves gained access.

The burglars also made off with canned food and spices, Campbell said.

The New Horizons community is already rallying in support of the small school. Facebook messages have gone out, alerting people that the van is missing.

Efforts by school supporters, including the Russian River Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, a nonprofit charity that has given thousands of dollars to the school over the years, are under way to organize fundraisers to help replace the stolen items.

"It touches our heart to see folks out there that can't function in the normal schools system and we want to make a better life for them," Sister Scarlet Billows said of the group's long-standing support of New Horizon.

School officials plan to meet with students when class resumes Jan. 7 and ease any fears about the thefts, Campbell said.

"These kids need a place to feel safe," she said. "I'll explain to them what we have done to secure the place."

Staff Writer Kerry Benefield writes an education blog at extracredit.blogs.pressdemocrat.com.

She can be reached at 526-8671, kerry.benefield@press democrat.com or on Twitter @benefield.

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