- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 6, 2003

A D.C. public school worker who took one of 13 computers last week from a special-education center in Northeast without proper authorization said yesterday that she and other employees have returned all of the machines.

“We didn’t mean any harm,” said the school worker, who asked not to be identified. “We employees from Hamilton Center did bring these computers back.”

A special-education advocate familiar with the incident, however, said he is aware of only one computer being returned.

The Washington Times first reported Tuesday that the advocate said a school security guard, a cafeteria worker, two secretaries and several classroom aides were suspected of removing the computers from Hamilton Center, at 1401 Brentwood Parkway.

Louis J. Erste, chief operating officer for D.C. Public Schools, and Theodore Tuckson, the school system’s acting director of security, declined to comment yesterday on the investigation and would not say whether the computers had been returned.

The Hamilton Center employee said the school’s principal, Brenda Kinsler, allowed personnel to take the computers.

“She wasn’t thinking at the time, probably thinking [school employees] could have the computers for their children, their families and stuff,” the worker said.

Miss Kinsler was among 10 school-system officials placed on administrative leave last week amid charges they had made improper purchases with credit cards issued by the school system.

The Times reported that school officials were investigating allegations that the Hamilton employees took the computers sometime between July 30 and Aug. 1. The school serves about 90 special-education students.

D.C. schools Superintendent Paul L. Vance has been unavailable for comment on the incident.

Mr. Vance said in an interview Tuesday on WTOP radio (1500 AM) that the school system needs to consider criminal penalties against personnel who made improper purchases with government credit cards or are found to be responsible for similar misdeeds.

“We have to begin to recommend criminal actions,” Mr. Vance said. “I think that nails it, and that sends the message to everyone that you just can’t do that with public money, particularly when you are trying to develop a larger public trust in your school system.”

School officials have yet to say, however, whether they will seek criminal charges in the credit-card scandal or in the removal of computers from Hamilton Center.

Notices posted at Hamilton Center late last week stated that those who returned computers would not be prosecuted, the employee said. The worker said she returned the one she took on Friday.

The employee described the computers as “really old” and “out of date.”

D.C. school administrators are required to document obsolete office equipment and turn it in to the school system’s warehouse. They are not authorized to dispose of equipment as they see fit.

The worker who admitted taking and returning a computer said she has not been questioned by school-system investigators. Co-workers “were saying several people talked to those investigators, but I don’t know who,” she said.

Mr. Tuckson said Friday in an e-mail to Mr. Erste that he dispatched “a team of investigators” to look into the charges. He also said in the e-mail that security-camera archives were being researched “in an attempt to corroborate the allegations.”

The system’s investigation of credit-card abuse, the results of which were announced last week, showed that employees violated policy by using cards to pay for computers and Internet service and to pay contractors for computer-related work at Hamilton as well as at Bunker Hill, Houston, Moten, Randolph and Ludlow-Taylor elementary schools.

City auditors found that school officials could not account for more than $1.6 million in charges, about one-quarter of the system’s credit expenditures for fiscal 2001. The system issued 275 credit cards to administrators and other school officials, who have spent more than $15 million in such transactions over the past two years.

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