Gardaí are hunting for two arsonists who targeted a school for children with autism.
Emir Duffy, principal of Cara Junior School, on the northside of Cork City, said the attack would have a huge impact on the daily routine of her 60 pupils, and she has appealed to the community to keep the building safe during the summer holidays.
“Our children need this stuff — it’s not a luxury. They need it to be able to function in our world,” she said.
Two teenagers scaled a fence on Monday night and set fire to a storage shed, and destroyed several hundred euro of play equipment.
“Our children are bound by routine and predictability, so, at break time, what is it you do? You go outside and you play outside. What do you do at lunchtime? You go outside and play outside,” she said.
“And that routine and predictability give them a structure in which they can understand the world, because they find the world very challenging and very confusing. So, we are going to have a number of highly anxious children, who will have meltdowns because they are not allowed to do what they always do, what is routine, what is predictable. If everything happens the same way every day, then that’s ok, but today it can’t.”
The school, established two years ago, caters for children ranging in age from four to 12 who have a dual diagnosis of autism and intellectual disability. Most of the children are non-verbal.
The school community gathered in the school hall on Monday evening to celebrate graduations, which concluded at 8.45pm.
The two arsonists were filmed on CCTV cameras scaling the playground fences at 9.25pm. They set a fire inside the storage shed, before climbing the fences again and making off across waste ground. The shed was ablaze within minutes. Fire fighters were called and extinguished it.
Ms Duffy said she was disappointed that the school had been targeted just a few months after windows were smashed: “It’s very disappointing, because the community in Mayfield is so supportive of the school. It’s disappointing that what’s going to go on now is something very negative with regard to the local community, and it’s only one or two individuals. They need to be educated better about what we it is we do here, and why we are doing it.”
In April, the school invited residents in for tours. “We wanted to share with the community what it is we do here, and why we have designated areas, and it was a very positive afternoon,” Ms Duffy said.
“Obviously, they [the arsonists] must not have come, because they might not have done this if they realised what it is we do here with our children. Our children have dual diagnosis of autism and intellectual disability, within the mild-to-moderate range. They can’t go out into a playground area and know how to play and expect that they can play, or interact with each other. You have to structure play for them. Play is an area of deficit for children with autism. The sheds we have in playground areas would contain various equipment and visuals, so children can request items to play with — this shed had a toy kitchen, saucepans, diggers for use in the sand, balls. And all that’s destroyed, now.”
“Today, for our children, it means 60 children cannot get out into the garden, they can’t use the sensory garden, the bicycle track, and can’t use the basketball court.”
Ms Duffy has spoken to people who previously vandalised the school and she found they didn’t understand or appreciate the work the school was doing.
She said she would say to the two arsonists: “Cop on. I would ask them to try and understand it from our children’s point of view, and I hope they never have a child with autism. I don’t think they see the anxiety levels these children have trying to make sense of the world and that we are trying to assist them. I don’t think they understand that.”
But she said the local community was one of the school’s biggest resources. She appealed to the locals to keep an eye on the building over the coming months, and that if they saw somebody to ask them to “cop on and leave the school alone.”
She also called for improved community facilities for teenagers, so that they had something active, rather than negative, to do.
Gardaí examined CCTV footage and conducted a forensic examination of the scene, and appealed to anyone with information to contact them.
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