A man suspected of possessing nine iPads snatched from an elementary school classroom in South El Monte pleaded not guilty Thursday to one felony count of possessing stolen property.
The charge stems from an incident on Jan. 15, when school staff at Cogswell Elementary School alerted police about a possible burglary.
More than 20 iPads were missing from a classroom. El Monte police officers noticed pry marks on the classroom door. They believed the burglar came and went by scaling the school’s fences, some of which are low and easy to climb.
To buy the iPads, the school used state funding through its supplemental and concentration fund, according to Superintendent Lillian Maldonado French. Now, the Mountain View School District is planning to use other state funds from a $57 million bond measure, which was approved by voters in 2016, to beef up security in hopes of preventing another burglary and other after-hours incidents like trespassing, vandalism, or in one case, setting a school bathroom on fire.
“When your school is vandalized, whether it’s graffiti, or whether it’s breaking in and taking devices, you always feel that one is too many,” said Darin DeKnikker, assistant superintendent of business services.
The 2016 bond measure was intended to upgrade the district’s aging facilities, some of which were built more than 50 years ago, such as Cogswell.
District officials plan to install more cameras throughout the Cogswell campus, as well as upgrading fencing to replace the low, flimsy chain-link fences used in portions of the school’s perimeter.
El Monte police Lt. Ben Lowry, who offers consultation to school officials on security issues, said that campuses across the district often lack security systems and have low fencing and doors that are easy to pry open.
Cameras, Lowry said, coupled with more lighting, would help deter would-be criminals.
Though DeKnikker agrees more cameras would help, he does not think it is the end-all solution.
“Cameras will only record it; it’s not gonna prevent it,” DeKnikker said. Though he added that there were no cameras monitoring the part of campus where the iPads were stolen.
DeKnikker said the district is constantly working with police to plan for the security improvements. The district also relies on a private security contractor who patrols the district’s 15 properties, 7 days a week.
“It isn’t like our schools are just sitting there waiting to be hit,” DeKnikker said.
The Jan. 15 incident was the second burglary in the past several years in which a suspect stole school technology from the school’s classrooms, and was among a slew of other incidents during after-school hours at Cogswell. The first incident was reported in 2017 when technology devices were taken from another classroom.
In December, police responded to two calls about people trespassing on school property. On Dec. 27, a fire was set in one of the school’s bathrooms. In both cases, Lowry said the suspects had already ran away by the time officers showed.
“I would say that people get comfortable. If they find that something is an easy target and it’s something they’re familiar with, they may go back there,” Lowry said of the trespassers and burglars.
The man suspected of possessing the stolen iPads, Carlos Ramos, 29, of El Monte, had a prior felony conviction for burglarizing a car in 2010, according to court records.
Lowry said Ramos also has a relative who is a student at one of the district’s schools, but it remains unclear whether that connection was a factor in the burglary.
Ramos was detained by police after an apparent traffic violation while he rode his bike on Tyler Ave and Schmidt Road in El Monte, two blocks from Cogswell, on Jan. 22. Officers found Ramos carrying several iPads. Two search warrants later, police recovered a total of nine iPads, all of which were traced back to Cogswell.
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Though nine iPads were recovered, the fate of the rest are unknown to police.
For now, the school will continue to deal with its after-hours incidents. Most recently, on Feb. 19, a resident called police about a group of teenagers who were seen on campus throwing rocks at the caller’s children.
Before officers had arrived, the group had dispersed and no arrests were made.
Editor’s note: A previous version of this story said the stolen iPads were purchased using bond money from a 2016 bond measure. Although that bond money is being used for security improvements at the school, the iPads were purchased using the district’s supplemental and concentration fund through the state law, Local Control Funding Formula.
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