Students questioned over arson fire

November 2, 2009 9:17:19 PM PST
Three Reagan High School students were questioned last month in connection with a recent fire near the Heights. Investigators tell us the fire is not believed to be connected to any of the other arsons in the area, but it does raise questions about the rights of students, schools and parents when it comes to investigating a crime. [ READ IT: See the HISD policy on student questioning]

Last month, someone set a vacant house on fire in the Heights. While the Houston Fire Department says it's not connected to the series of arson fires it's investigating, the following day HFD arson investigators and HPD went to Reagan High School to question three students about it. Tyler Stephens, 16, was among them. He said he voluntarily answered questions for more than five hours.

"They were trying to crack me," Tyler said. "They said that I knew who it was, it was like one of my friends or something like that. And I'm like, 'It's not.'"

Stephens says not only was his father unaware of what was happening, we found out the principal didn't even stay in the room for the interview. She is supposed to be present and notify the parents unless the interviewer objects, as outlined in the district's policy.

HFD Arson Division Chief Alison Stein told Eyewitness News, "Investigators never had an objection to the principal being present for the interview."

Tyler's aunt Sharon Stephens said, "It's not right for them to pull them out of class unless they have a parental signature."

HISD released a statement to Eyewitness News late this afternoon that read, "The principal was in a meeting when HFD came to the school. An HISD PD officer notified her that HFD was there. She authorized her officer to accommodate HFD."

Tyler says no one from HISD was present in the room during his interview, including the HISD officer escorted him to the room.

HISD issued the following statement from Reagan High School Principal Connie Berger: "The parents of the students who were interviewed should have been notified and an HISD staff member should have been in the room during the interview. I am putting procedures into place to make sure this done not happen again."

Tyler also says that in addition to the single fire from last month, arson investigators also asked him about the string of arson fires in the Heights, though arson investigators denied that to Eyewitness News.

Meanwhile, the search continues for the serial arsonist believed to be responsible for more than a dozen fires in the Heights area. The latest fire started in a garage around 4:30am Thursday at Durham and West 19th. There have been 17 fires set since early August.

Authorities are offering a reward for information leading to the arrest and prosecution of the arsonist. Anyone with information should call Crime Stoppers at 713-222-TIPS.

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