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Just hours after a worker painted over graffiti on a wall at Sonoma Charter School, someone came by in broad daylight and sprayed a large gang symbol across the facade, still wet with fresh paint.

For school director Paula Hunter, whose year has been fraught with graffiti, broken doors and a stolen computer, the new tag put her over the edge. She walked across the street into the neighborhood and began knocking on doors to ask if anyone had seen the culprit.

"Even just getting the neighbors who see something, getting them to make a call to the sheriff; they won't do it," Hunter said.

Sonoma Valley campuses this school year have been plagued by vandalism and other problems during non-school hours, costing schools time and money to patch the damage, said school officials and law enforcement officer.

In response, Sonoma County Sheriff's deputies have launched a crackdown, starting in January with a "no-tolerance policy" to loitering, said Sgt. Greg Stashyn.

"We're trying to take a pro-active stance so this criminal element doesn't take over," Stashyn said. "We're targeting folks who have no business on the school grounds, who aren't carrying footballs or soccer balls."

The policy led to eight arrests Saturday night at the El Verano School in Sonoma Valley. Deputies stopped two groups of young males, ages 15 to 18, who were hanging around the school late that night, Stashyn said.

Deputies found a knife and a small amount of marijuana. All were cited for misdemeanors and released to their parents, he said. Their cases will be reviewed by the District Attorney's office.

Deputies on weekend patrol duty pass through campuses several times each shift, paying close attention to El Verano School on Riverside Drive, Sonoma Charter School on Sonoma Highway near Agua Caliente Road West and the Flowery School on Sonoma Highway just north of Boyes Hot Springs, Stashyn said.

Deputies have responded to more than 40 reports of disturbances, burglary, suspicious vehicles and suspicious people at those three schools in just the past two months, sheriff's records show.<NO1><NO>

School and law enforcement officials were put on alert after two Agua Caliente teen-age boys were accused of raping a 14-year-old girl at the El Verano Elementary School campus after midnight Jan. 25, 2009.

The group had been drinking outside the school and the girl told deputies she was too intoxicated to resist the assault, detectives said. The boys, 15 and 16, were charged with felony sexual assault, according to sheriff's reports.

The assault came as difficult news to the neighbors around the school, which becomes a community park when school is not in session.

"We have kids here every day after school. Families are using the playground, soccer players on the field, basketball players are out there right now, they stay until they can't see," Mait?Iturri, the school principal, said this week. "It's very well used by the community."

Parents jumped into action and organized watch patrols, garden projects and campus clean-up days, Iturri said.

"I give all the parents my cell phone number. If they're out walking and they see something, they call me," Iturri said.

The financial impact of vandalism comes at an acute time for the Sonoma Valley School District, which employs seven maintenance workers for its 13 schools, said John Bartolome, the district business manager. Next school year, maintenance operations will be cut by at least $100,000, he said.

Justin Frese, assistant district superintendent who oversees maintenance operations said, "Dealing with graffiti and vandalism is a daily occurrence; it's part of doing business."

"It's hard to say whether it's increasing over the last few months. Certainly some schools receive more than their fair share."

One of those is Sonoma Valley Charter School, whre the part-time maintenance employee devotes 75 percent of his time to graffiti abatement and repairing damage done by vandals, said Hunter, the school director.

Currently, reinforced plates are being installed on the doors to help prevent break-ins, she said. Burglars broke into the school twice in January and took two speakers and a printer.

Hunter said that after the school was broken into in August and a computer stolen, she asked teachers to take their laptop computers home after work.

"I lug my own computer home at night because I'm fearful that when I come back in the morning it'll be gone," Hunter said. She jokes with her staff that they should take turns keeping watch at night.

Employees at Sonoma Charter have posted signs offering $300 to anyone who reports a vandal or provides information leading to an arrest. So far, no one's called, she said.

"In the early years of graffiti, people began to think it was an expression of art," Hunter said. "Most of the graffiti we get hit with are from opposing gangs or obscene drawings. It's pretty upsetting."

Sheriff's Sgt. Stashyn said it's too early to tell whether the loitering citations are curbing the problems at the school sites, but he said if the community feels safe using school grounds, the uniformed presence will help keep it that way.

"If there's loitering going on, drinking and drug abuse, all that can lead to more significant things; it can lead into fights, assaults," he said. "Once those things start, then the community doesn't want to go there."