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School fire suspect may be charged as adult

A partition is used to separate Sonora Elementary School fifth-grade classes. Classrooms not damaged by the fire are being shared until portable classrooms can be set up. Maggie Beck / Union Democrat, Copyright 2013.
The Tuolumne County District Attorney’s Office said on Tuesday it will push to prosecute as an adult the 17-year-old who allegedly started the Sonora Elementary fire.

The DA’s Office said the suspect is “not fit for treatment in the juvenile justice system and should be tried as an adult.”

However, such prosecution must come after an order is issued by the Tuolumne County Superior Court.

The court itself must declare that it finds the suspect unfit for juvenile prosecution before the DA’s Office can proceed with adult prosecution, explained District Attorney Mike Knowles. 

The 17-year-old is a former student of the school and was arrested on an arson charge last week after several interviews were conducted by investigators from the Sonora Police Department. 

Until adult prosecution is approved, he is still going unnamed per juvenile prosecution rules.

At least one other former student has been interviewed at the scene of the crime, but Sonora Police Chief Mark Stinson would not confirm whether he was an additional suspect or a witness. 

The fire occurred the night of Nov. 23 and damaged 15 classrooms for fourth- through eighth-graders. It started in a garbage can outside a classroom, according to school officials.

Sonora Elementary students returned Tuesday for the first day of school since the fire.

A morning assembly was called to explain to the kids what happened and where they would now be going for classes.

“We talked about challenges and how we must overcome them,” said Principal Chris Boyles.

All classes were kept on campus to keep the sense of “community,” which is very important to the school, Boyles said.

“I think it went pretty smoothly,” said fourth-grade teacher Molly Lininger of students returning to school in new classrooms.

“They were glad to be back and see that it was OK,” she said. “The administration did a good job in communicating with parents on what to expect. Most teachers worked over the (Thanksgiving) break, and that helped, as well as Monday which was a prep day.”

The teachers didn’t work alone.

“There were more people than we knew what to do with,” said fourth-grade teacher Ron Jannuzzi, noting former students and their families, as well as numerous volunteers from the parent organization Support Sonora School, were on hand to help set up temporary classrooms in places like the library and indoor physical education room.

Art teacher Kelly O’Brien had to give up her classroom to Jannuzzi. She put up pirate-themed posters and brought in a coffee-maker for him — two things he is known for — to make him feel welcome.

O’Brien, who teaches art to multiple grades, now has a cart on which to wheel around her art supplies — in the rain at times on Tuesday. She visits classrooms for their art classes for now.

The school has ordered 10 modular buildings to use for classrooms, the first of which arrived Tuesday. 

More were ordered after the realization that buildings D and E, which suffered mostly smoke damage, will likely not be ready for class after the winter break, as previously predicted. 

The portables will likely take a few weeks to be instruction-ready, Boyles said.

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