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Aberdeen High vandals savage the planetarium


ABERDEEN -- Dave Duchon stood in the middle of the dim room where students come to study the stars and planets and shook his head in disbelief.

Mr. Duchon, the planetarium director at Aberdeen High School, pointed to dents in the domed metal ceiling, left by slide projectors hurled into the air, and the console panel, where a reel-to-reel tape recorder, ripped from its casing, dangled by an electrical cord.

The star projector, a delicate piece of machinery that formed the heart of the planetarium at the school, wobbled on its platform, its wires torn out, its globe dented by a baseball bat or a fire extinguisher.

"I'm numb. It hasn't sunk in yet," Mr. Duchon said yesterday as hesurveyed the destruction wrought by vandals who caused more than $350,000 damage at the school Wednesday.

"I can't believe anyone would do this. I'm hurt and upset and disappointed and disgusted," he said, his words echoing in the empty planetarium.

Aberdeen Police said yesterday that they believe at least two teen-agers got into the planetarium and adjacent classrooms by smashing a window and vandalizing two locked doors early Wednesday morning. Along with badly damaging the planetarium, the vandals also hit three science classrooms. There, they broke open jars of chemicals, which combined to emit clouds of fumes, smashed science equipment and turned on faucets, flooding floors, police said.

Mr. Duchon said he believes the star projector is beyond repair and that the planetarium, where more than 6,000 students from 11 schools attended classes last year, will not reopen in time for the start of this school year. That likely will mean that many students will miss out on classes in a planetarium until it is restored because the county's other two planetariums, at Southampton Middle School and at Edgewood Middle School, serve students from other schools.

The star projector could cost $250,000 and take four to six months to replace, said Ralph Lamenzo, customer service manager at Spitz Inc. in Chadds Ford, Pa., which built the projector.

Insurance is expected to cover some of the costs, said Albert F. Seymour, Harford County schools spokesman.

Last year, the planetarium played an integral part in a number of classes, including science, art and history. "You can use the planetarium to teach children how early explorers navigated the seas, using stars," Mr. Duchon said.

He had hoped to develop a Civil War program showing the position of the night sky during important battles. But the vandalism has put those plans on hold, he said.

Mr. Duchon spoke wistfully yesterday of the happiness the planetarium had brought everyone from pre-kindergarten children getting their first taste of science to community groups being rendered spellbound by the annual Christmas show.

"This equipment has always been tended so carefully," he said.

Indeed, at the end of the school year, Mr. Duchon had disconnected power to the star projector and wrapped the equipment in plastic garbage bags to keep out the dust.

Aberdeen police Detective Kenneth Cox said police have several leads and some "solid evidence."

"Whoever did this was very determined," he said. "They smashed a window and two locked doors to get into the planetarium."

Soon after the vandalism was discovered, authorities had feared a chemical reaction. Members of the Aberdeen Fire Department, the Aberdeen Proving Ground Fire Department and the Harford County Hazardous Material Team spent more than five hours Wednesday cleaning up the chemicals, police said.

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