Bill aims to curb school losses from metal thefts

As the price of copper, steel and aluminum continues to rise, California schools are getting hit by a surge in metal-related burglaries. Fortunately for districts in this state, however, new legislation may soon help deter such crime.

Assembly Bill 844, authored by Assemblyman Tom Berryhill, R-Modesto, would make it more difficult for criminals to sell stolen metal to junk dealers and recyclers.

The bill passed unanimously through the assembly earlier this month with a vote 74-0 and cleared the senate 34-1 in late August and is now on its way to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Metal thefts have been problematic for California school districts, with criminals targeting modernization and new construction projects. While copper wiring has proven to be the major target, districts have also reported the loss of catalytic converters, air conditioning units, copper tubing, and even goal posts. In one case, thieves severed a working water line to procure the piping.

Should Schwarzenegger sign the bill, the new legislation will require junk dealers and recyclers to collect identifying information including thumb prints of the sellers and photographs of the scrap metal. Additionally, cash payments will be delayed three days and dealers will have to issue checks to pay all irregular dealers.

Some counties already have similar regulations in place, but the bill would set a minimum standard for monitoring scrap metal sales across the state.

Supporters hope the bill will act as a deterrent that will prevent thieves from targeting schools.

Hopefully, it will prove to be a disincentive for people to steal these metals and catalytic converters, said Susan Stuart, a lobbyist representing several districts in support of the new legislation. If they have no market to sell what they have taken, they will be less likely to steal.

Schools suffering from metal related thefts must not only pay to replace the stolen materials, but are also often burdened with paying to repair any damage or vandalism associated with the crime. In one particular incident this summer, schools in the San Juan Unified School District were burglarized five times within five weeks. The thefts cost the district over $150,000 and led them to invest another $20,000 in increased security.

If this bill is effective, it could help districts hold onto funds that could be used for improvements or to help support other programs.

Every dollar is precious when we are talking about modernizing or improving school facilities, said Tom Duffy, legislative advocate for Californias Coalition for Adequate School Housing.

Bobby Ritter, who has a Master's Degree in Journalism Education from the University of Missouri, is a freelance writer from Fair Oaks and teaches Journalism and English at Roseville High School.