- Andrew Marra Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
It was bad enough when band director Quinton Peterson learned someone had broken into a room at Boynton Beach High School and stolen his car keys and loose change from his desk drawer while he taught across the hall.
But then he stepped out into the parking lot and noticed something else: His Dodge Challenger had disappeared, too.
By the time the car was recovered eight days later, it had been banged up, ransacked and littered with ashes and marijuana debris. The radar detector has been stolen, as had an expensive hat, a leather covering on the hood and headlight covers.
Peterson, the school’s band director, had to pay a $2,000 insurance deductible before the bumper, axle and dented body could be replaced. And he estimates it will cost him hundreds of dollars more to replace stolen items.
Security camera footage showed students stealing the car on Nov. 2 but didn’t capture their faces, he said, confounding police’s efforts to solve the case.
But the biggest blow to Peterson wasn’t the lack of arrests. It was the school district’s refusal to cover any of the costs of fixing his car or replacing the stolen items, which he said together cost him more than $2,500.
Peterson found out the hard way what many public and private employees discover each year – that employers generally have few obligations when workers’ personal belongings are damaged or stolen on the job.
School district has ‘no legal liability’
Palm Beach County’s public school system will compensate teachers if their vehicles are vandalized on campus or if personal items are damaged during a physical altercation involving students.
But it takes no responsibility for most other items stolen or damaged on campus, including vehicles.
“There’s no legal liability for us to pay for damage to a car on our parking lot,” said Dianne Howard, the school district’s director of risk and benefits management. “At this point we’re not paying for thefts or collisions.”
Educators say the policy is not unusual, but in extraordinary cases like major damage to a vehicle it can leave school employees vulnerable to major unforeseen expenses through no fault of their own.
Peterson said he was stunned when the school district rejected his request for compensation. After all, he said, he had not acted recklessly.
His keys were in a bag in a drawer of his office desk. He said the door was locked and that students forced their way in, possibly with a spare key.
“No one seems to care that students broke into my office, stole my car and damaged my car,” he said. “I was told you park at your own risk. Park at my own risk? I’m working.”
Justin Katz, president of the county teachers union, said that teachers routinely leave personal items in their classrooms or offices and have a right to a reasonable expectation that their things are secure.
He said they deserve to be compensated if their belongings are stolen or damaged through no fault of their own.
“You would expect the district to take some responsibility if this is the result of a security breach,” Katz said. “There’s a big difference between your car getting damaged in the parking lot during normal activity and students breaking into private areas of the school and taking your possessions to steal a car.”
Principal: Case is ‘not a good experience for anyone’
While employers have little legal obligation to compensate employees for theft at work, some public agencies do set up arrangements to aid employees whose property was damaged or destroyed on the job.
The state of Wisconsin, for instance, has a state claims board that considers requests for compensation for property loss or damage in connection with any state agency.
Peterson said that the school’s music rooms have a history of thefts and break-ins, even when the doors are locked. He said there is widespread speculation that some students may have access to a set of keys.
Guarn Sims, the school’s principal, dismissed that idea, however. He said there was no indication that students have access to keys or that anyone forced their way into the room.
And while he said he had heard claims that there had been previous break-ins in the music classrooms, Sims, who took over as principal this summer, said he had no direct knowledge of those.
Sims said that police had an idea of which students were involved. Investigators and school staff were able to pressure some students into admitting where the car was stashed, he said, allowing Peterson to recover the car, but they did not yet have evidence for an arrest or discipline.
He called the theft “an isolated incident” and said he sympathized with Peterson’s plight but didn’t have any say in whether the district compensates him for the damage.
“That’s just not a good experience for anyone, whether you’re a teacher or working at another place,” he said. “But by the same token, this incident really is not indicative of Boynton High.”
Katz said the union was exploring whether to seek to negotiate an arrangement with the school district to protect teachers from extraordinary financial loss through theft on campus.
“It’s a serious concern of teachers,” Katz said. “Security of your professional space is extremely important, and it’s a shame to think that you have a key and you lock your door and someone breaks in somehow.”