Just after 1 a.m. Friday, the staff of Hmong International Academy in Minneapolis got a rude awakening.
The fire department had discovered the school’s playground ablaze in the middle of the night. They put out the fire, but not before the playground had been completely destroyed.
The Academy posted pictures of the wreck on Facebook. Twisted remains of metal climbing equipment stand alone amid the ruins of collapsed platforms and bridges that lead to nowhere. The ground is covered in scorched woodchips and discarded odds and ends. According to executive director of marketing Julie Schultz Brown, some school windows and doors were damaged, too.
“It’s just disappointing,” she says. Everyone is getting ready to go back to school, and new equipment is being ordered, but it probably won’t be ready for use until the end of September or early October. Until then, the playground remains a no-man’s land.
“Nobody can be around or in it,” Brown says.
A letter from Principal Jamil Payton to parents and staff said that police and security staff were working to “identify who did this.” Together, Payton said, they were going through footage from the surrounding cameras, which happened to have been installed last summer. Minneapolis Police spokesperson John Elder says it's not a sure thing, but arson is one of the working theories for their investigation.
Comments on the post called the news “heartbreaking,” “infuriating,” and “messed up.”
“Sad news,” one commenter wrote. “My son loved that park.”
Sadly, it’s not the first complete playground annihilation in the city – not even the first to occur in the few remaining weeks before class. Last year, students at Lake Harriet Lower Elementary returned to the desiccated heap that was once their school playground. The cause: a couple of boys who had been playing with matches near the swingset.
Back in 2013, a rash of playground arson, which hit five different Minneapolis public schools over the course of a summer, left authorities flummoxed. A district spokesperson told the Star Tribune that the damages had swelled to a whopping $220,000 and left all five “unusable” by early September.
Payton acknowledged that the wait for the Academy’s new playground would be “difficult” -- especially for the younger students who play outside every day.
But he asked them not to let this news dampen their spirits for the new school year.
“We’re getting our school ready and teachers will be back in their classrooms soon,” he said. “We are excited for the return of our students!”