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Long IslandNassau

Closed Hempstead school deliberately set on fire, officials say

Firefighters were called to a fire that broke out at a vacant Hempstead school building on Thursday, Jan. 26, 2017, the fire department said. A call reporting the fire at the former Marguerite G. Rhodes School, located at 270 Washington St., was made to the fire department at about 1:22 p.m., according to the department. Credit: News 12 Long Island

A fire was deliberately set Thursday at a shuttered Hempstead school building where records are stored, authorities said.

It caused minimal damage to the former Marguerite G. Rhodes School on Washington Street, where firefighters put out the flames around 2 p.m., shortly after the blaze was reported at 1:22 p.m., officials said.

“There were kids seen fleeing the area,” said Michael Uttaro, Nassau County assistant chief fire marshal. “The school has been a hangout for juveniles and gangs.”

No injuries were reported in the fire, Uttaro said.

The school closed in 2004 because the building had deteriorated. It was later condemned.

Uttaro said the records were not burned but district officials who went to the scene said some of them were scattered outside.

Under state law, nothing combustible is allowed to be kept inside a condemned building, Uttaro said.

The school district stores boxes of records from previous years at the vacant building, and the fire caused some concern from a school board member.

Melissa Figueroa, elected to the board last year, said she’s concerned about the timing of the fire. The board last week put a notice in the paper to solicit companies interested in doing a forensic audit of district expenses over the years, she said.

“I’m really beside myself,” Figueroa said. “I have been asking about safeguarding the documents that are in the building, including at the last board meeting last Thursday.”

She said she went to the scene and picked up papers that had been flying around — copies of checks and private and student information.

Fadhilika Atiba-Weza, who became the interim superintendent in July, declined to say what documents were stored there but said current records were kept at an administrative annex.

Atiba-Weza said he was not allowed into the old Rhodes building because of the fire investigation and was unable to determine damage.

He said he was unaware that the building had been used as a hangout but has directed staff to secure the building and check on it more often.

Due to the district’s growing enrollment, Atiba-Weza said, district officials have been discussing renovating the building to be used as a school again. “In light of what happened today,” he said, “it’s a conversation that will be accelerated.”

With Joan Gralla and Stefanie Dazio


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