Pupils' pride and joy set alight

05:30, Jun 23 2009
NOT IMPRESSED: Andrew Ireland, 19, and his classmates used this van to get to work, gym, supermarkets and cafes.

Andrew Ireland and his special-needs classmates are dismayed after an arsonist destroyed their "pride and joy" a much-loved van that helped them participate in their community.

The 19-year-old, who has Down syndrome, was in tears after arriving at Freyberg High School in Palmerston North yesterday to find the van burnt out.

The vehicle was parked in a shed that was set alight on Sunday night. The attack was one of five arsons in the region within a seven-hour period.

"It was someone stupid," Mr Ireland said. "It smells all smoky."

The pupils, aged between 18 and 21, are part of a programme to help them adapt to life in the community. They used the van daily to travel to the gym, supermarkets and cafes.

Mr Ireland does work experience as a produce assistant at Toops wholesalers and relied on the van to get between school and work.

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School staff are scrambling to find a stop-gap solution until a replacement can be found, but at least one pupil, who is in a wheelchair, will be stuck at school.

"They looked out for [the van] and took a lot of pride in it," teacher Genevieve Bryant said. "One of the students vacuumed it on a regular basis ... It was their pride and joy."

Principal Peter Brooks said the arsonist struck about 8pm on Sunday, and had to break a window to light the fire.

Police are investigating the blaze, which they believe could be linked to others in Manawatu on the same night.

A skip bin at nearby Skoglund Park was set on fire at 7.50pm and a caretaker's shed at Terrace End Primary School was damaged about 8.40pm.

A fire was lit at a building site on the outskirts of Palmerston North at 11.25pm and hedge clippings were set alight in Feilding at 2.40am.

Detective Senior Sergeant Craig Sheridan said no one was hurt but arson was a "stupid crime" that put people and property at risk.

The Dominion Post