As mother-of-three Lana Jo Hill puts it: “Moms get shit done.”

Since Monday, Hill and other parents of more than 100 infants and toddlers — and their teachers — who attend Embark Education have been “scrambling” to help each other arrange day care after their cherished Hereford child care and preschool was broken into and contaminated with a toxin sprayed by a fire extinguisher late on Oct. 28 or early Oct. 29, parents and teachers say.

For many, that’s meant shuffling their children among each other’s homes as they try to maintain some semblance of a routine for kids as young as 6 weeks and 4 years old, which school directors are told could take more than one week as residue is thoroughly cleaned from classrooms, playrooms, gymnasium and nap rooms.

“We’ve loved Embark since the day they opened their doors” in 2021, Hill said during a Friday phone interview from her Cockeysville home. Two of her children, ages 5 and 7, played happily in the background, supervised by an Embark teacher.

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“They’ve been so kind and wonderful,” said Hill, the owner of a bookkeeping firm. Her daughter, 18-month-old Violet, is enrolled in Embark’s infant and toddler program.

“All of this happening to our day care — it’s having your home away from home ruined. Violated,” Hill said.

According to the Baltimore County Police Department, police responded to a reported burglary around 2:15 p.m. Sunday, Oct 29. Officers who arrived at the scene found the property had been vandalized between Friday evening and Sunday afternoon. They recovered a fire extinguisher that had been discharged, according to the police press office.

Embark co-founder Kelly Pucillo, a preschool educator of 27 years who runs the day care with two co-directors, said security camera footage identified three teenage boys who broke into the school through a classroom window.

They licked icing off the leftover cupcakes from Embark’s Halloween party, seem to have ridden around on tricycles and moved the walkie-talkies, and drained the juice boxes, Pucillo and Hill said.

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The vandals switched off power in the school’s circuit breaker, shutting off the stocked refrigerator and freezer. And they sprayed a fire extinguisher — releasing a chemical and residue throughout the classrooms and bathrooms that teachers, who initially thought they could clean the place themselves the Monday following the trespassing. The teachers said it burned their eyes and left a thick, horrible taste in their mouths.

“I walked into my classroom and my eyes started to burn immediately,” said Erika Moon, who teaches Embark infants to develop motor skills, such as lifting their heads and walking, and to socialize.

Moon, who’s worked at Embark for three years, said there was “residue everywhere. There’s no way they’re [the babies are] going to be able to be here with all this stuff over it.”

Embark’s cleaning crew discovered the mess during scheduled cleaning Sunday and alerted the directors that afternoon, Pucillo said. Pucillo and two other former preschool teachers opened Embark in 2021, about a year after Pucillo said they lost jobs at their former preschool amid the coronavirus pandemic.

With more than 20 instructors — Pucillo herself teaches a science class — the school is founded as a “collective” of all-women teachers, many of whom previously worked together and have a shared vision of educating children with diverse cognitive functions.

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Pucillo, Moon and Hill said the support among parents and teachers has been immense. When teachers showed up Monday expecting they could clean up the damage, parents brought them meals. Teachers have bounded to parents’ homes to babysit and FaceTimed with their students. Moon reached out to wish one of her students a happy 1st birthday, which she had been excited to celebrate with him.

Lana Jo Hill plays with her daughter Violet on Nov. 3, 2023. Violet’s day care was recently vandalized and is temporarily closed, leaving her parents to come up with an alternative for daytime care. (Kaitlin Newman/The Baltimore Banner)

Pucillo and Hill say they don’t believe the people who broke in knew that unloading the fire extinguisher could release irritants that can harm the lungs, throat and nose if inhaled. Pucillo said the chemical was dispersed through the HVAC system of the 15,000-square foot building over the course of possibly 30 hours. Hill said she trusts Embark will reopen only when it’s safe for children like Violet, who has asthma, to return.

It’s not clear, though, how much of the day care’s belongings Embark might be able to salvage. The school’s ceilings, floors and walls are able to be deep-cleaned, teachers said, but their library of children’s books must be thrown out. And many toys, play mats, baby rattles, furniture and other fabric materials, will have to be disposed of.

“We’ll have a building to teach out of; we just won’t have the materials,” Pucillo said. Losses are estimated at up to $250,000, she said.

The school is seeking donations of toys and books in “like-new” or “excellent” condition, as well as Amazon gift cards delivered to the school’s email address for teachers such as Moon to buy what they need after they understand the extent of the damage. They’ll accept donations at Embark on Monday, Nov. 6 from 10 a.m. to noon, and from 2 to 7 p.m. that day.

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The following Tuesday they’re accepting any donations between 2 to 4 p.m. Teachers are seeking children’s books; toy cars; trains and train tracks; dolls; baby swings, bouncers and mats; and other toys for infants.

The police department’s press office said Friday afternoon a police report had not yet been completed. No charges have been filed as of Friday afternoon.

“At the end of the day, this was a group of teenagers that didn’t realize the damage they were inflicting,” Pucillo said.

But the moms, kids and teachers are resilient, she said.

“It has bonded us all together. It has been overwhelmingly beautiful to see not only the teachers rally, but our parents come together and rally around us, and take care of each other over the past week and the upcoming week.”

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“It’s really become an incredibly beautiful thing,” she finished, “in the midst of the hardship.”

taylor.deville@thebaltimorebanner.com

Taylor DeVille covered Baltimore County government for The Baltimore Banner with a focus on the County Executive, County Council, accountability and quality of life issues affecting suburban residents. Before joining The Banner, Taylor covered Baltimore County government and breaking news for The Baltimore Sun.

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