SF State student loses school laptop in North Bay fires, was still expected to pay library fine

It was just after 1 a.m. on Oct. 9 when Sierra Hinkle was woken up by police and told to evacuate her family’s Santa Rosa home.

She could see the flames of the Tubbs fire climb up a nearby hill and move closer to her house every second. She left with only the clothes on her back and her cell phone. She took no photographs, no heirlooms and no mementos. She didn’t even take her purse, and the laptop she had borrowed from SF State was the last thing on her mind.

“We had no time to grab anything,” said Hinkle. “I threw on shoes, put on a sweatshirt that was on my floor and grabbed my phone. Luckily my mom grabbed my purse [for me].”

Hinkle’s neighborhood was one of the first hit by the North Bay fires that struck three weeks ago. Less than 10 minutes after she and her family of five had evacuated, their home was completely consumed by the blaze. Everything that had been left behind – including the borrowed laptop – was turned to rubble and ash in the fire.

Despite losing all of her material belongings, SF State administration expected Hinkle to pay for the destroyed laptop. After backlash from Hinkle and faculty members as well as an inquiry from the Xpress, Deborah Masters, the University librarian, issued an apology email to Hinkle Friday afternoon and decided to waive the fee.

“Please accept my deepest sympathy for the devastating losses your family has experienced,” said Masters in an email to Hinkle early Friday afternoon. “I apologize for any insensitivity to [Hinkle] and adding to the burdens of her family’s devastating losses in any way.”

The apology came about a week and a half after Hinkle was asked to pay a fine of $1,500 to replace the computer. The laptop, a Dell Latitude E6420, retails online for less than $300.

Hinkle, a transfer student majoring in health education at SF State, had rented the PC laptop from the J. Paul Leonard Library resource center when her personal computer stopped working in September. The laptop was on lease to her for a month and was due back to the library Thursday, Oct. 26.

Hinkle notified systems administrator Kim Fwan Wong and information commons coordinator Christopher Novak via email about her situation. She was originally told that she needed to file a police report and pay for the lost computer, in compliance with the rental agreement she had signed back in September.

“Our thoughts and prayers are with your family, your community, and to all those affected by this devastating fire. We will need an official police report from you to document this incident … Do you or your parent have homeowner or rental insurance policies to cover the lost laptop?” said Wong in two succeeding emails.

Hinkle said she was unable to immediately file a report with local police because authorities were busy assisting fire victims, maintaining road blockages and searching for missing persons. Additionally, she was preoccupied with her family’s safety and the future of her community.

“We were fortunate to actually have insurance,” said Hinkle. “There are so many families that didn’t have renters insurance, including close family friends, and they’re very limited on the resources they have to bounce back.”

“But they asked if my renter’s insurance would cover the cost of the laptop,” said Hinkle. “Like, no – it’s covering our cost of living.”

According to Independent Insurance Agents and Brokers of America, the average renter’s insurance policy covers $30,000 of property damage. Individual policies vary, with some only covering as little as $5,000.

Most of her renter’s insurance is being used to cover immediate damages like food, temporary housing and clothes for the family of five, according to Hinkle. While the insurance does provide enough assistance to house the family in hotel rooms until Feb. 1, it doesn’t cover all living expenses. Hinkle’s parents have to pay out of pocket for additional costs like utilities, so Hinkle didn’t have high hopes that there would be enough money left to cover the fine.

Some members of SF State faculty disagreed with the way the school handled Hinkle’s situation and advocated for debt policy reform. Lisa Moore, one of Hinkle’s health education professors, got involved on Wednesday. She notified John Elia, the assistant dean of the College of Health & Social Sciences, and Mary Beth Love, the health education chair, and demanded that the school “do better.”

“To see the bromide, ‘our thoughts and prayers, blah, blah, blah’ made me ill,” said Moore in an email. “This young woman is grateful that somebody gave her a backpack and she has to get thoughts and prayers emails from our administration? Shameful.”

The school’s strict adherence to the rental policy despite Hinkle’s situation was in contrast to SF State’s campus climate of sensitivity. A number of student organizations and campus clubs held food drives, blood drives and clothing collections to help victims of the North Bay fires, and professors accommodated students as best they could.

Moore said she and other faculty members had received several emails from administration indicating that the campus was going to stand by and support members of the SF State community who were affected by the North Bay fires.

In Hinkle’s case, SF State administration actually initially made her situation more stressful. When Hinkle returned to school this last week for midterms she didn’t have any school supplies, notes or textbooks, yet she was worried about paying her rental fine so her academic plan would not be hindered.

“I just [didn’t] want a hold on me being able to register for next semester,” said Hinkle, who plans to graduate in spring.

“When a member of our community is forced to flee their home at night, with literally the clothes on their back, I would hope that, at a minimum, the university would delay any accounting and debts,” said Moore. “The university was not showing its most supportive face.”

Despite the devastation caused by the fire and the initial stress from her library fine, Hinkle tries to make light of her situation and keeps a positive attitude. With the death toll at 42 from the North Bay fires, she says she is just glad to have her loved ones safe and to no longer have to worry about the fine.

“It is a huge relief for me and my family,” said Hinkle. “Material things can be replaced, your family cannot.”

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