After special needs classroom is burglarized, OCSD and city step up to recover losses


Teachers at Dana Hills High School didn’t envision starting the school year with vandalized white boards and burglarized classrooms.

But the morning of Aug. 26 – the second week of the new school year — teachers with the Structured Teaching Educationally Prepared Students (STEPS) program found themselves cleaning up ransacked rooms and accounting for missing items before their students arrived that day.

SRO Deputy Palma poses for a photo with students in Dana Hills High School’s Structured Teaching Educationally Prepared Students (STEPS) program. Photo courtesy of OCSD

Earlier that morning, six suspects targeted the four-classroom section of the Dana Point school that works with students with moderate-to-severe disabilities. The STEPS program focuses on teaching its 56 students helpful life and social skills to benefit them after they graduate.

The program has three classrooms adjoined by a brightly lit multi-purpose room with a kitchen and long tables where, on a recent Monday, students were busy working on art projects with their high school student counterparts as part of the “Best Buddies” program.

“The students here are really inclusive,” STEPS teacher Angela Rinke pointed out.

Joshua Porter, principal of Dana Hills High, poses with Sgt. Stout and Margie Sheehan, chief of police services for Dana Point, and a Dana Hills High School student. Photo courtesy of OCSD

STEPS is focused on preparing students for the world outside Dana Hills’ halls by teaching them how to cook, complete work tasks and get around Orange County using a bus pass.

The program partners with local business, such as Harpoon Harry’s and Beach Harbor Pizza, where students clean tables, wipe down menus or fold pizza boxes to ready the restaurant for business.

When they complete their work, they get paid. Given the program is part of an educational curriculum, payment comes in the form of donated ice cream vouchers.

Deputy Borrit Hansen poses with students. Photo courtesy of OCSD

Simple things STEPS relies on as part of their program – bus passes and more than $150 in ice cream vouchers – also were burglarized Aug. 26.

“That’s why we believe whoever did this has some knowledge of this program,” said teacher Angela Rinke. “It seems they knew exactly where we kept those things.”

The vandals also helped themselves to the program’s kitchen, cooking a meal and leaving their dirty dishes behind, and also stole some items students rely on to communicate with their teachers, including a red plastic button one non-verbal student would push to respond to questions.

Part of the fun on Sept. 14 included motor deputies showing their motorcycles to the students. Photo courtesy of OCSD

“They also went into an iPad and deleted a $250 application that student uses every day to participate in our program,” Rinke said.

Thanks to the quick action of the teachers – Rinke, Kirstee Radley, Rob Harris and Joel Tapper, and school maintenance staff — the students entered the classroom the same way they had left it the Friday before.

Everything had been straightened up and wiped away, and the teachers hoped they could replace what was taken before the students would notice.

Deputies with the Orange County Sheriff’s Department responded to the burglary report and DHHS School Resource Officer Davida Tidwell immediately started making plans to ask her fellow deputies to help the students recoup the loss.

Photo courtesy of OCSD

“This just really hit home for me,” she said. “These kids are the sweetest, and I couldn’t believe someone would do that. I figured it wouldn’t be too hard to replace everything. I also wanted to show these students that even though we have to do our work and investigate this, and even though they experienced a loss, we care.”

The burglary remains under investigation.

When city officials got wind of deputies reaching into their own pockets to help the students, they intervened.

Photo courtesy of OCSD

“When the city found out, they contacted us immediately and asked us to put our own money away,” Tidwell said. “They wanted to pick up everything.”

Dana Point Assistant City Manager and Director of Administrative Services Mike Killebrew purchased the items and delivered them to the school. And the city offered to pick up the tab for an epic ice cream social if the Sheriff’s Department would provide deputies to interact with the students.

On Friday, Sept. 14, the city brought in tubs of ice cream that was scooped into bowls by more than 20 OCSD personnel. The students also all received balloons provided by the city and were treated to a motorcycle demonstration put on by OCSD motor deputies.

“It was amazing,” Rinke said. “It was unexpected, but a really fun way to get our students engaged with the Sheriff’s Department. The students were super excited.”

Photo courtesy of OCSD

While STEPS has recouped the loss from the August burglary, the program always is in need of some essentials and some big-ticket items to keep their growing program successful, Rinke said. Contact her for more information:

STEPS is interested in receiving the following:

— Bus passes for individuals with disabilities

— Local businesses to partner with to provide work experience for the students

— Kitchen items including pots and pans, cutlery, and other kitchen utensils

— Grooming items: soap, deodorant, shampoo, body wash, etc.

— Sports equipment

— A new refrigerator

— A new dishwasher

— Diffuser with lavender essential oil