Custodian charged after fire at Edison elementary school

Joe Torres reports from Edison.
March 24, 2014 8:27:50 PM PDT
A custodian has been charged with smoking inside the James Monroe Elementary School in Edison Township after a Saturday night fire destroyed the school, and investigators pointed to a tossed cigarette as the cause.

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Jerome C. Higgins, 48, of East Brunswick, was issued the summons for smoking in a public place in violation of a statute that prohibits smoking and/or carrying lighted tobacco materials. It's a disorderly persons offense.

Investigators determined that Higgins, a custodian at the elementary school, smoked a cigarette inside the building and tossed an unfinished portion of the cigarette into a trash can.

The contents of the trash can, located in a custodian's office, caught fire and the blaze spread through the building on Saturday night.

Smoking is banned in schools in New Jersey.

We caught up with Higgins outside his home. He did not want to speak on camera, but said how sorry he was for what happened at a school he attended as well.

The fire came just as the school was celebrating its 50th anniversary.

The mission Monday was to salvage whatever they could. The fire destroyed not only the building, but school projects, books, brochures, and destroyed a sense of security for the children.

On Monday some kids saw their old school for the first time since the fire.

"This is like their second home, so it is devastating," said one parent.

Officials say it will take at least two years to build another school at the location. Roughly 500 kindergarten through fifth-grade students attended the single-story school.

Some third graders will never come to school there again.

"They would like to keep the children together and we certainly agree, and that's what we're looking for, but it's difficult for 470 students to keep them all together at the same facility," said Frank Heelan of the Edison Board of Education.

Parents have been left to ponder their children's future. A temporary school is being set up at Middlesex County College, which will open on Wednesday.

Details of the arrangements came Monday night during a community meeting at Edison High School. A long-term solution might include leasing a nearby Catholic school building which is now closed. Renovations there could take months and cost $1 million.

Now, district officials are scrambling to come up with a alternate plan to take care of them for the remainder of the school year. They are considering every unused school building in the area as a long term option, but for now, starting Wednesday, students will be bused to Middlesex County College.

"Every child has a classroom. It's actually going to be quite nice for them. Some of the teachers might get a little to used to the special setting they are going to have," said Principal Lynda Zapoticzny.

Plans are also being made for parents to get the kids to their new school.

"You will drive your children to Herbert Hoover Middle School. That will be a drop off. We will bring them in one door, put them on a bus out the other door, and take them to Middlesex County College," said superintendent Dr. Richard O'Malley.

Parents liked what they heard at the meeting.

"They already have a building up and running. I can't think of a better response from the county officials, from the education department. This to me is a very apt response," said Chandan Goel.

"Once I told my daughter that they were all going to be kept together, she started cheering, jumping up and down. It really changed everything," said another parent, Mariano Thayer.

Dozens of firefighters battled the blaze for about three hours before it was brought under control. About a dozen firefighters were treated for smoke inhalation, but no residents were injured.