A SENSELESS crime had stunned the Downpatrick community.
In the early hours of Sunday morning (23 September) vandals broke into Knockevin Special School in the town and went on a rampage cause widespread damage.
Six buses were damaged with radios stolen, steering locks broken, fire extinguishers removed, and glass doors broken including a window into the nurse’s room. Inside the school the intruders broke into classrooms causing more damage with broken glass strewing floors. They tried to remove a TV bit left it in another part of the school.
The over 90 children of Knockevin School suffer from learning difficulties and receive highly specialized care and help in the education.
A 23 year old man has been charged with various offences including burglary, theft and criminal damage and is due to appear at Newtownards Magistrates Court today (Tuesday 25 September).
School principal Anne Cooper said: “Our pupils were faced with these difficulties as they arrived to the school but we did our best to keep the schooling ongoing to have a minimal impact on the children.
“We are still assess the damage but it is extensive. Importantly the nurse’s and physiotherapist’s rooms were entered and damage caused. These rooms are very important for the well-being of our pupils. They have a key function in the school and support the pupils with complex medical and learning needs.
“It has also been a difficult time for the parents. We were fortunate in getting another six buses laid on by the SEELB. It is so import for these children not to experience such change and disturbance in their environment. Everyone is just dismayed by this incident.”
Chief Inspector Deirdre Bones, Area Commander for Down PSNI, said the damage at Knockevin has deeply upset the community. She has asked for anyone with information on this incident to contact police.
“The level of damage caused in this incident is horrendous and I understand that this had a significant emotional impact on everyone connected to Knockevin.
“Police are actively investigating this incident, and an arrest has been made on suspicion of burglary and there will be a thorough examination of the scene to determine exactly what happened.
“I want to assure the community that both domestic and commercial burglary is a priority for me and my officers on the ground. We will be actively patrolling our burglary hot spots and we would encourage anyone who notices suspicious activity to call 999
“If you have any information on burglaries of private homes or business premises please call Downpatrick police on 0845 600 8000. Or if you want to pass on information without giving your personal details you can contact the independent charity Crimestoppers on 0800 555 111.”
South Down MP Margaret Ritchie has condemned the £30,000 vandalism spree at Knockevin School. She said: “The despicable and heartless actions of thugs have caused an enormous amount of damage to Knockevin Special School.
“These vandals have shown a total disregard for the educational wellbeing of these vulnerable children by damaging their means of getting to school as well as the school building itself. This attack deprives the pupils of necessary facilities and places a heavy burden on an already overstretched education budget.
“One hopes that the school environment can return to some normality as soon as possible. I commend the staff for all their hard work as they attempt to resume the school week. The parents of the young people who attend Knockevin will no doubt be upset at any disruption caused to their children’s education.
“This attack represents not just an attack on the school but also on the wider community. I would urge anyone who may have seen anything suspicious at the school over the weekend to come forward and help the police with their further enquiries.”
Sinn Féin Education spokesperson Chris Hazzard MLA has condemned those involved over the weekend in the “senseless sabotage and destruction of vital school services” at Knockevin Special School in Downpatrick. Mr Hazzard said: “Regretfully, this kind of mindless behaviour has been highly destructive and indeed dangerously selfish. With thousands of pounds worth of damage and a local community in shock, this is both an attack on vital school services and an attack on the entire Down district.
“Knockevin School provides an exceptional service for some of our most vulnerable young people and an attack of this nature is totally deplorable. I have been in regular contact with the Education Minister John O’Dowd throughout the day, and he confirmed that contingency plans have been put in place for the new school week.
“The staff at the school have been brilliant in pulling together at this horrible time, and their efforts have been matched by the Education Department who have since confirmed that alternative transport will be made available for those pupils affected.”
Local Sinn Féin Councillor Liam Johnston also expressed his shock and dismay at the weekend’s events. He said: “The sense of shock and anger in the local community is palpable to say the least and I am genuinely shocked that people would stoop as low as this and attack a school that provides a vital service for our local children.
“Knockevin School has a special spot in peoples’ hearts here in Downpatrick and the vandalism and theft of services from the young people has been an awful attack on all of us.”
Councillor Colin McGrath, SDLP local health spokesperson, has labelled those who broke into the Knockevin School as spi,neless, heartless individuals.” He said: “I utterly condemn this attack on Knockevin Special School as an attack on the whole community and one that will disgust the whole town.”
Speaking as the SDLP’s Downpatrick health spokesperson, he added: “This attack on a Special School is a disgrace. Educational centres are there to provide a valuable service in our town and to have it attacked in such a manner is disgusting.
“I understand that those who carried out this vandalism were probably high on illegal substances and that one of the perpetrators was caught at the scene. I would urge the PSNI and Courts to treat this matter with the seriousness that the community will view this attack in
“We cannot have individuals in our community who think that the weekend is an excuse to consume substances and go on a damage spree – the fact that it was in a special school is even more horrid.
“With vehicles damaged, the school broken into and a nurses station damaged, this is an attack against the most vulnerable in our community.
Councillor Cadogan Enright said: “I was up at the school shortly after the damage was discovered and it was terrible. I was appalled at how senseless this crime was.
“How anyone could break in to a school for special need’s children is just unbelievable. This must have been extremely distressing for the children whose classrooms were affected. It is just utterly disgraceful. I hope all of those involved are caught and dealt with appropriately by the police and an example made.
“Experiencing a break in is a traumatic business but to these children it is much much more and affects their well-being. We have to send out a message in the strongest terms that this just cannot be tolerated.
“I urge anyone with any information to contact the PSNI immediately so those involved are rounded up.”
Alliance Councillor Patrick Clarke has also strongly condemned the damage at a special school attacked by vandals at the weekend. He said: “Six buses had been damaged, as well as doors of three rooms in the school kicked in and the rooms extensively damaged. It simply beggars belief.
“Thankfully staff came in on Sunday to assist in the cleanup which has enabled the school to open on Monday with minimum disruption to the children and young people who attend the education centre.
“I would like to commend the staff in their efforts to ensure that it was business as usual for those who attend Knockevin School which serves the entire District.
“Knockevin provides a very valuable service for our community. I simply cannot understand why Knockevin School was targeted.”
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Although the school has been severely attached in an astonishingly callous manner, the staff at Knockevin School have pulled out all the stops to ensure that their pupils experience minimal disruption.