One Columbia County educator earned a hefty reward this past week for assisting in an arson investigation last year.
Melanie Sprouse, of Lakeside High School, received a $4,000 check Wednesday from Georgia Insurance and Safety Fire Commissioner John Oxendine and the Georgia Arson Control Board.
Oxendine said the reward was given to Sprouse for information she provided that led to the arrest and conviction of two juvenile arsonists.
"She was extremely valuable," said Capt. Daniel Gwinn, the Martinez-Columbia Fire Rescue investigator. "We probably would not have solved it without her assistance in this case. She did an incredible job for us. I'm extremely grateful."
Sprouse said that on Oct. 1, a 14-year-old student arrived late to school without a parent after a fire had been discovered behind the baseball field scoreboard.
"It was just suspicious," Sprouse said. "When I went to his classroom, I could smell smoke. As he sat longer in my office, I could smell gasoline. So I kept pushing the issue of 'I know something is going on here.' He had a cigarette lighter. Like Mr. Oxendine said, he was a newbie to this. So he gave up information that led to who his partner was."
The accomplice was a 14-year-old Lakeside Middle pupil with previous arson convictions.
The investigation revealed the pair had started the fire near the scoreboard, attempted to set fire to a nearby home and tried to destroy a pressure washer.
Both were charged with first- and third-degree arson and were sentenced to 18 months' probation and ordered to a treatment facility, according to the Columbia County Juvenile Court.
Oxendine said that law enforcement officials have reported to him that many school administrators are torn between wanting to protect the student body and not ruining pupils' lives with a criminal conviction. So many don't report suspected criminal behavior, he said.
"Our children are the most precious resources we have," Oxendine said during the ceremony at Martinez-Columbia Fire Rescue headquarters in Martinez. "We have got to protect out children. But protecting our children doesn't mean covering up for them.
"Protecting our children means letting them stand on their own two feet and suffer the consequences."
Sprouse said she doesn't know what she'll do with the reward money, provided by Oxendine's office, the Georgia Arson Control Board, the Georgia Arson Hotline and the Georgia Arson Reward Program. She's more focused on finishing up classes at Augusta State University.
But the reward, she said, was a total surprise.
"I think the real heroes are these men who go out and fight the fires," Sprouse said.
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