Thieves disable six vans for adult students with disabilities

GIG HARBOR, Wash. — When catalytic converter thieves targeted six disabled-accessible vans in Gig Harbor, they left the district with expensive repairs and stopped a program that helps adult students with disabilities.

For disabled special education students in the Peninsula School District, the wheelchair lifts on specially equipped school vans represent the bridge to an independent life beyond high school. The vans connect special needs students every day with the world outside the classroom in the district’s “Community Transition Program.”

“They get learning experiences like going to jobs,” said Stephanie O’Brien-Fors, who helps run the transportation department for the school district. “They’re teaching them how to integrate into our society.”

But thieves recently cut a hole in a chain-link fence and stripped the vans, sawing out the catalytic converters from underneath.

“We took quite a hit on this one,” said O’Brien-Fors, who said the thieves took advantage of the most vulnerable students they have.

“Teachers came to get their vans. And when they started them, they sounded horrendous. Mechanics went down, heard it, got underneath, confirmed the catalytic converters had been taken,” she said.

The repairs will cost the district about $30,000, and the parts have become incredibly hard to find.

A recent KIRO 7 investigation traced the dramatic increase in catalytic converter thefts to the value of three precious metals inside. Platinum, palladium and rhodium — which are worth many times more than gold.

Some businesses have welded cages beneath their trucks to protect their converters. In Pierce County, there have been more converter thefts in May and June than in the previous two years combined.

The Peninsula School District is determined to have the vans repaired. But until they are, the vans will not be able to help special students transition to a measure of personal freedom.

“They look forward to that,” she said. “Going out on their jobs, and the program directors and teachers do a fantastic job. So yeah, it’s sad to see when they take from them.”

The district is working to find parts to restore the vans before school begins Sept. 7.

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