We all want to throw the book at teens — until our own kid gets in trouble with the law

A school truck was among the property vandalized by students. (Channel 2 Action News)

A school truck was among the property vandalized by students. (Channel 2 Action News)

What is the right response to the graduation graffiti spree by East Paulding High students and graduates?

Should it be felony charges? Or should the wrongdoers be ordered to pay the costs to the county for the clean-up or work off their debt in service?

We can all agree that it was stupid for two dozen teens, including the senior class president at East Paulding High, to celebrate graduation with a vandalism rampage. But are felony charges overblown?

There is a trend to arrest teens for juvenile behavior that once warranted a stern lecture, a call to the parents, and a promise of restitution and reformation. An argument can be made that the cost and time to prosecute kids for this sort of nonsense are not worth it. Just make the kids pay for the damages, suspend them and then let them move on with their lives. Do we need a band of teens branded felons, which makes it far more difficult for them to get jobs?

The AJC has a new story today on the efforts on the class president to have the school suspension reconsidered, an effort that led the school board to ban the young man from graduation.

Before folks jump all over this teen, I want to ask a favor: Consider if this happened to your child or your grandchild. Many people soften their stance when their teen is the one picked up by police for loitering or underage drinking.

I always find it amusing to hear lawmakers decry people who take home loans they can’t repay when top House and Senate leaders default on loans and fail to pay their taxes. I also know of several lawmakers who sought leniency when their own kids were the ones in trouble with the law, blaming the errant actions on youthful ignorance.

According to the AJC:

Jacob Zimmerman, 17, was among two dozen students and recent graduates charged with a felony offense of interference with government property after they were accused of defacing property at and around the school last month.

Zimmerman admitted painting a skull and crossbones on the road outside the school, saying it was an annual tradition for seniors. But he said he left the scene before fellow pranksters moved to the school and painted vehicles and buildings, causing $7,500 in damage.

The school system suspended him for the duration of his high school career, banishing him to an alternative school. Officials would not discuss his case or the others, so it’s unclear whether all received the same punishment, though Zimmerman thinks they did.

Unlike most of the rest, he appealed the decision, and on Tuesday the school board denied his appeal. Then, a school board member made a motion to heap on more punishment: prohibiting Zimmerman from attending his graduation ceremony. The teen said Wednesday that the board voted 6-1 in favor of the motion.

“It really feels like they did it out of spite because I went against them,” Zimmerman said.

Board members said they couldn’t talk about their vote for various legal reasons, including student privacy and litigation. “Until this thing is resolved, I prefer not to make a comment on it,” said board member Sammy McClure. “We feel this thing is going to be appealed.”

The student’s mother, Denise Zimmerman, said her son was on track to be the class valedictorian. It’ll be difficult for him to win the honor while attending the alternative school, where no advanced placement classes are offered. He’ll have to keep up with his four AP classes on his own, she said.

Zimmerman and the other defendants are to meet with Paulding District Attorney Dick Donovan Friday. Donovan has the option of altering the charges, and said he’s reached a decision that he will reveal at the 2 p.m. meeting at the courthouse.

–From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog

91 comments Add your comment

Tonya C.

April 11th, 2012
5:31 pm

I would’ve told him to suck it up and deal. Defacing of public property is a crime and none of my children would be given a pass. When I graduated the principal reminded us during school announcements ‘don’t do anything stupid’ or we could be denied the opportunity to go to prom, grad nite, or particiapte in graduation.

The Deal

April 11th, 2012
5:31 pm

I think a remediation plan is in order first, something like you described where they repair or pay for repairs of the damage, suspension, and probationary period after suspension. If they do not complete the entire plan, then file charges.

Ron F.

April 11th, 2012
5:43 pm

As I’ve told my soon to be 16 yr. old, when that many teens get together in a clandestine way, somebody is going to go over the line, and everyone there can face charges. Perhaps because we swept these things under the rug for so long, nobody thinks it’s serious. I’m not sure kids now have the same moral compass and sense of guilt that earlier generations had, and they expect someone to get them out of this. A prank would have been painting the street, a parking lot, or a grassy area. When they went to the level of painting the building and parked vehicles and a subdivision sign, they just plain went too far. I’ve told my son that if he is caught there, then he will face the same charges. I love him, and it would hurt me terribly, but if he had been involved in this, I would expect him to face the legal ramifications.

Jordan Kohanim

April 11th, 2012
5:52 pm

The board should have him repair and pay for damages. They should not rake his hard work to this point through the mud. He made a bad decision. One bad decision.

Why ruin his reputation and all the hard work he has done to this point? Why create a citizen who is forever distrustful of the justice system? Why not give him a punishment that befits a poor decision made by a teenager as opposed to the life-sentence of someone who has repeatedly displayed poor decision-making?

Why? Precedent. That’s why.

I think he is right. This was a spite-reaction; they wanted to make an example of someone who went against the discipline cycle. What choice do they have?

Think if EVERY kid attempted to appeal. The cost of defending every discipline decision would bankrupt the schools. When we live in a litigious society and the largest line-item on a budget is education, schools will be forced to show their might by example. While his family might not have sued if they won, it’s not likely that would be the case in enough repealed suspensions.

He is an unfortunate victim of a litigious society.

3schoolkids

April 11th, 2012
6:11 pm

My parents made clear to me as a teenager that if I broke the law, I would face the consequences and I have taught my children the same. While it seems like harsh punishment for these young people, the school systems have to draw the line or face dealing with further bad behavior. They already deal with writing on walls/doors/desks, deliberate overflowing of toilets, leaving food out to fcilitate bug infestations, etc. There are many senior pranks that can be done that don’t cause property damage, but these students CHOSE to deface property. I feel bad for this young man, but when he left as it was getting out of hand why didn’t he try to stop it or go get help? Prevention of further behavior will hopefully be stopped by making an example of those who were caught.

Don't Tread

April 11th, 2012
6:27 pm

A “prank” is TPing the principal’s house or hanging a sign off the roof. No permanent damage done.

This is vandalism and should be prosecuted as such.

Shar

April 11th, 2012
6:32 pm

Well, I think I’d go the other way – and my children will say, with some bitterness, that I was never a pushover. However, if these kids are suspended for a week or two, clean up their own mess, pay fines and perhaps are required to address the student body and explain the lesson they’ve learned, I really don’t see the point in sending them off to finish their senior year at another campus that does not meet their educational needs. The prohibition from graduation for the one student who appealed appears to be more spiteful than remedial, too, at least to me.

Bernie

April 11th, 2012
6:52 pm

How strange this is to find such a article based on a act of Vandalism by a group of teenagers. if this teens skin color were of a different hue, it certainly would not merit the comments of a AJC columnist for sure. Strange, but not completely suprised by its appearence here. Going forward are we to expect more such advocacy of restrained punishment of others that commit a similar offense. I will be waiting patiently to see.

Hillbilly D

April 11th, 2012
7:08 pm

If you’re gonna be dumb, you gotta be tough. Welcome to the adult world.

oldtimer

April 11th, 2012
7:26 pm

Shar..I agree with you……

oldtimer

April 11th, 2012
7:28 pm

Bernie…this was a pretty mixed group, both racially and sexually.

Archie@Arkham Asylum

April 11th, 2012
7:48 pm

@Hillbilly D: Hear! Hear!

Maureen Downey

April 11th, 2012
7:54 pm

@Bernie, I have been writing about this issue for years — nothing unusual about it. And my understanding from earlier posters on this topic — this is the second blog entry on this issue — is that this group crossed racial and ethnic lines.
Maureen

Andy

April 11th, 2012
8:10 pm

The school board is going to have some ’splaining” to do to the community when they seek re-election. Why in God’s name would they have gone beyond the schools recommendation. There will be heck to pay for that one.

Bernie

April 11th, 2012
8:19 pm

Maureen – Oh yes, I remember those postings and the fact that the AJC refused to show their faces when in fact they were already in the public for viewing. my question is what makes it so news worthy NOW? it has already been reported and discussed. could it be due to the supposedly exceptional status of only one of the perpetrators involved in this crimminal act? You have no back ground information on the other students involved and surely they too recieved a similar punishment. I recall viewing the photos from a local online paulding news outlet and actually questioning how such a diverse group managed to come together to do such a crime. this article does not touch on any of those issues that is why the confusion of why now.

KIM

April 11th, 2012
8:25 pm

Young people make stupid decisions and follow through with them. What a price to pay. However, in Ga every public school student is more than well versed in what is acceptable behavior and what is not ,..even if the parents don’t instill in them right from wrong. I am not suggesting that the parents were irresponsible in this case, though. This is just a punishment for wrong doing. Simple. A lesson learned the hard, hard way. Perhaps we should all hold all people accountable for wrong actions. Then this would not seem so out of the ordinary. Hmmm.

KIM

April 11th, 2012
8:27 pm

@Bernie. Forgive me, Bernie, but you don’t make any sense.

catlady

April 11th, 2012
8:31 pm

A prank causes no harm. This was substantially more than a prank. If an adult did this kind of damage, it would be a felony. Simple enough. Time to grow up.

And yes, my son did something dumb, although not destructive, and I fully supported the principal in his OSS suspension. I was EMBARRASSED that my son would do something so boneheaded–something that might have hurt someone’s feelings, reflected poorly on him, and on me. The OSS made HOPE completely unattainable.

Perhaps some of those involved should reflect on bringing shame on their families.

catlady

April 11th, 2012
8:33 pm

BTW, we teachers see this EVERY DAY. When it’s someone else’s kid, it’s “fry the little b******.” When it is their kid, “He is only being a boy.” And “You school people are so Politically Correct.” I call a major BS.

Mikey D

April 11th, 2012
8:41 pm

If I were a betting man, I’d probably guess that the DA will reduce the charges to misdemeanors. I believe that’s appropriate, but as far as this kid whining about how the suspension is unfair, I can only give one piece of advice — Look in the mirror, young man.

Bernie

April 11th, 2012
8:46 pm

KIM @ 8:27 pm – EXACTAMUNDO! NEITHER DOES THIS BLOG! :)

ATL_Native

April 11th, 2012
8:59 pm

It’s a scary world out there for a parent these days. My dad would say if you run with the crowd and someone in the crowd does something – then you are guilty with the crowd. You just have to step out on faith and PRAY – no hope – everything you instill takes hold. It’s terrible that a moment is not clouding what should have been the best day of this boys life.

To the school board – yep it was spiteful – and I understand your decision – but it was a little much and seemed rather mean spirited. You can’t tell me you were goody goody in high school
To the young man – do what they ask and turn this spite into spite achievement. Get’em back back graduating MAGNA CUM LAUDE from college.
To mom and dad – you still deserve a pat on the back – its sounds he has been a great kid with the exception of this incident

Upset

April 11th, 2012
9:17 pm

I don’t think most of y’all are understanding what happened. Jacob did paint the street in front of the school, a tradition that has been done for years by every Senior class, but he did NOT paint or vandalize the school. There is a BIG difference. He left when he saw the other kids vandalizing the school because he knew that it was wrong and did not want to be involved. Keep in mind that the school has never had a problem with the street being painted until now. So many of y’all are so quick to judge without even knowing all the facts. Why ruin his life because of the actions of others? All he wanted to do was to go back to school to complete his education and graduate as class valedictorian. This alternative school that he has to go to now does not offer AP classes. How on earth can he keep up his grades with NO instruction? This is so wrong! They are setting him up to fail. This could cost him a scholarship. Once again…he did NOT vandalize the school so all of y’all that keep saying that he has to learn a lesson or grow up, you’re mistaken. He did what Senior classes have done for years- paint the intersection in front of the school. No one has ever had a problem with the Seniors doing this. It eventually fades and the road is ready for the next class. No harm done. The other kids are the ones that vandalized the school. He should not be punished for their actions!

God Bless the Teacher!

April 11th, 2012
9:25 pm

Accountability. It all boils down to accountability. Mr. Valedictorian surely was taking AP US Gov’t and understood how such behavior, “prank” intended or not, would have less than appealing consequences. Too many times parents, the media, and society enable such people and allow such misbehavior “because they’re just being kids.” What a bunch of hooey! Their behavior was no different from any gang tagging buidlings in poorer sections of town. NO difference. Seniors staking their claim vs. gangs staking their territory. I truly feel sorry for the parents of these students because they have surely felt embarrassed by the actions of their progeny. Participants…get over it, deal with, learn from it, grow up, and don’t glorify the behavior to your friend or children. The last thing we need is for stupid decisions to breed more stupid decisions.

God Bless the Teacher!

April 11th, 2012
9:34 pm

@Upset…Birds of a feather flock together. If you play with dogs you get fleas. Maybe the “tradition” of defacing PUBLIC PROPERTY, road…school…still paid for with taxpayer money, should stop. Would the parents of these students allow them to spray paint their HOMES celebrating that they are seniors? At least that would be a personal decision with NO negative consequences. AND it’d be a heck of a lot less expensive to clean up (i.e., no public employees being paid with taxpayer money). Sorry, your blather is not convincing to me.

God Bless the Teacher!

April 11th, 2012
9:38 pm

@Upset, again…sorry, commercial break on American Idol…if Mr. Valedictorian was part of a protest mob and only threw one stone at the police, would you want him to not be grouped together with others who threw more stones than he? Or would you watch the video and single out only those who threw three or more stones?

God Bless the Teacher!

April 11th, 2012
9:41 pm

One last thing @Upset…his “life” is not ruined (so dramatic). Only maybe his reputation is damaged and pride hurt, but if he’s that smart he’ll persevere and do perfectly fine in college and in Life.

God Bless the Teacher!

April 11th, 2012
9:46 pm

One last thing @Upset…his “life” is not ruined (so dramatic). If he is that smart, I’m sure he’ll persevere and do perfectly fine in college and in Life.

Hillbilly D

April 11th, 2012
9:52 pm

He left when he saw the other kids vandalizing the school because he knew that it was wrong and did not want to be involved.

But he was already involved. People have to realize that things get out of hand fast and when they do, you can’t walk it back. That’s why I always tell people that trouble happens fast when it happens, usually too fast for you to do anything about it, so the way to stay out of trouble, is to stay out of places where trouble occurs.

I know I’m ancient but back in the day, Daddy told me, “Don’t you ever call me from jail. You got in there on your own and you can get out the same way”. I knew him well enough to know he meant it, so I never went to jail.

Janet

April 11th, 2012
9:54 pm

@ God Bless the Teacher — You’re wrong…. there is a difference. The difference depends on if he had a history of bad decision making or behavior. A class valedictorian who worked his butt off to earn that title and made a mistake, should be able to make ammends without such drastic damage to his future. They’re kids for God’s sake. They’re supposed to make mistakes!

Now the ones who have a history of this type of behavior and don’t learn from it (such as gang tagging), need stronger consequences. But here it seems it was pure spite.

Greg Kaiser

April 11th, 2012
10:07 pm

The charges should be reduced to misdemeanors.

Any current student who participated in painting anything beyond the street in front of the school should be suspended and, depending on past disciplinary record, possibly assigned to the alternative school.

Any senior who participated in painting anything beyond the street should be suspended, and should not participate in the senior prom or graduation.

Only felony charges will have a significant negative effect on the future lives of these students, which is why I would hope they be reduced. Missing a graduation ceremony or a prom will hurt, for certain, but will do no long-term harm. In fact, it will provide a valuable life lesson for those involved.

And isn’t that the primary purpose of a school in the first place?

Ron F.

April 11th, 2012
10:16 pm

@Upset: I’ve taught for many years, and trust me when I say that this event, while emotional for him, won’t ruin his life. Yes, he’ll have to work harder to graduate, probably work harder to get through college, and he’ll either learn to appreciate what he did and what it taught him, or he’ll end up a bitter man in a trailer park somewhere. It’s what my parents called “character” and you learn it from your mistakes more than from your successes or being forgiven for being with the wrong crowd. He chose to go with that group, knowing who was there, and he chose to participate. He’s one of the guilty and will hopefully grow up knowing that the world has consequences that can’t be mitigated by saying “but I left”.

Brandy

April 11th, 2012
10:32 pm

My biggest question when I first heard this story: If this student was so innocent or simply in the wrong place at the wrong time, did he call the police to report the vandalism he witnessed? If he did, then I agree, over-punishment and he’s got a case. But, it appears that he didn’t, making him culpable for (at the minimum) covering up an illegal act. Now, if the punishment had been up to me, all of these teens would have been suspended, not allowed to go to prom or to walk at graduation, AND they would have been spending the next few days cleaning up their mess and volunteering their time to the benefit of their community–I’m not sure criminal charges are actually helpful in this case.

Bernie

April 11th, 2012
10:49 pm

This story appears to be another ZIMMERMAN demanding special consideration after committing a crimminal act.

Atlanta Mom

April 11th, 2012
10:52 pm

The year my youngest was a senior, I held my breath–the entire year. She was the star student of her class, but really really bored. We talked about pranks on a regular basis, but you know, they are teenagers.
We seem to have criminalized being young and dumb. I believe these kids should be doing community service and pay for the damages.
Fact is, they didn’t physically hurt anybody. I have no tolerance for that. They did damage property. Make them pay. And hopefully they’ve learned a lesson.
And I do think the board was vindictive when they voted to not let him attend his graduation. That’s petty.

A reader

April 11th, 2012
11:08 pm

All actions have consequences. While this is a hard lesson that these students learned, they need to stand up and take responsibility for their actions. Claiming that he ONLY defaced city property (the street) and not school or private citizen’s property is a very poor defense. Claiming that defacing city property is a “school tradition” is an even poorer defense.

His life is not ruined. He will not be able to participate in some of the fun activities for seniors. He will have to work doubly hard to maintain his grades. These are consequences of his own actions. He needs to suck it up, take responsibility, and learn from this incident.

Upset

April 11th, 2012
11:08 pm

@God Bless The Teacher, talk about being dramatic.. You’re actually comparing this to gang activity?! He did not go there with the intention of committing a crime! He took part of a tradition that does not require clean up or money. It’s always an insignificant action that fades with time. As far as hanging “with the wrong crowd” he had no idea that the others were planning on vandalizing the school. He would have never gone if he knew of their intentions. This kid is an amazing young man that has NEVER been in trouble with anyone much less the law and now they want to label him a criminal? Come on…

TimeOut

April 11th, 2012
11:28 pm

It seems to be common for all of us to be so absolutely certain that others think and feel exactly as do we. Yes, there are people who harm their children by removing most if not all natural consequences for their children’s mistakes. This does not mean that ‘most’ folks want only other parents’ children to face consequences. Since the beginning of time there have been those who felt that it was right to hold others to a standard not meant for their own children. Such children may rise above this type of warped childhood. Others will be the workplace bullies, the political parties’ sociopaths, and the neighbor who murders others through his drunk-driving or other antisocial behaviors. It isn’t a new thing. I wonder…….if we had been able to access online blogs, emails, cable tv, etc. in the ‘good old days’ if we would have seen just as many posts in which individuals demonstrate their disgust for the antisocial behaviors of the nearly-grown and their enabling, narcissistic parents.

OTOH

April 12th, 2012
12:34 am

Since the school cannot prove Mr. Class President vandalized any school property, the school has no authority to punish him in any way. We parents and taxpayers have let schools get away with exceeding their authority and violating due process for far too long. The pettiness of the school board’s response demonstrates perfectly that this is all about their control issues.

Dr. Craig Spinks/ Georgians for Educational Excellence

April 12th, 2012
1:50 am

Throw the book at my grandkids, too.

My grandson found out the hard way and is a better man for it.

God Bless the Teacher!

April 12th, 2012
6:04 am

@Janet, “They’re kids for God’s sake. They’re supposed to make mistakes!” First, they’re not kids. How did he get to the intersection in the first place at that time of night? Did he drive himself? Did he sneak out of his parents house? If he’s “just a kid” then I don’t want him to have a driver’s license! If he’s given the responsibility to drive, then he should be responsible enough to make adult decisions.

@Upset, “He did not go there with the intention of committing a crime!” Defacing public property, road or otherwise, IS a crime. Over time and without intentional cleaning, the paint on the buildings will fade and go away. Did he have possession of the paint prior to arriving at the scene of the crime? Probably..that’s intent when combined with the fact he decided what he was going to do once he arrived at the scene of the crime.

Both of you are enablers.

God Bless the Teacher!

April 12th, 2012
6:11 am

One more @Janet and @Upset. How was it that he happened to be at the scene of the crime at the same time all of the other students were there at that time of night, on the same night? It seems to me it was more than coincidence. Sounds like something was PRE-planned and PRE-meditated. Sounds like he was already going to be able to walk with his graduating class (maybe eventually not being valedictorian if wasn’t motivated enough to do independent work to complete his AP courses). He just thought he was ENTITLED to better treatment because of academic status and past record so he decided to push the matter with those who were next in line on the decision making food chain. Why didn’t he plead his case with the principal and let the principal speak in his defense to the BOE? That may have made a bigger impact with the BOE. Too many mulligans in our society have led to too many people like you justifying stupid actions like this.

mountain man

April 12th, 2012
6:25 am

The good thing is they do this in college, too – look at the felony convictions of those UGA football players who tested positive for drug use…oh, wait.

The Deal

April 12th, 2012
7:09 am

I’m with Maureen. I think that all of you tough love posters would change your tune if your valedictorian kid’s college future was in jeopardy because of a school prank. If your kid had been there and then people started crossing a line, what would you want your child to do? Some of you are saying it didn’t matter that he left. I wasn’t aware teenagers were clairvoyant and could predict what a group of teenagers was going to do in the future. If it were my kid, I would want him to leave immediately.

Again, I am not advocating for no punishment but something appropriate (have any of the other seniors in other years been prosecuted?) and then heavier consequences if they don’t carry through. Reduced charges and probation for first-time offenders are not uncommon and are closer to reality than throwing the book at someone without a record.

Mid GA Teacher

April 12th, 2012
7:24 am

I don’t have an issue with the charges or the school punishment. As long as the offenders don’t have prior criminal histories, the felony charges will most likely be dropped to misdemeanors with little actual punishment beyond restitution and community service which is fair for the excessive damage that they caused. Real damage not just toilet paper and such costs real money to fix.

I don’t believe that they should walk at graduation either. This is a severe property crime and the students are legally adults or about to be and know better. We must treat them as such. If they were in 8th grade, I would feel differently. As far as going to the alternative school and not having the same academic opportunities… That is true, but the opportunity to graduate and continue with one’s life with no real lasting consequences is there. That is appropriate. The parents won’t get to see their baby walk….sad, but not a life-ender. These students will go on to lead perfectly normal lives and the precedent will be set for later classes that such behavior is not tolerated. This is appropriate in my mind.

teacher

April 12th, 2012
7:24 am

catlady and God bless the teacher: Hear, hear!

“We all want to throw the book at teens until our own kid gets in trouble with the law” is behind the apathy, confrontations, helicopter parents, and other garbage that makes teaching a difficult profession.

Double Zero Eight

April 12th, 2012
8:18 am

@ Shar
I concur with your assessment.
I couldn’t have said it any better.

Mountain Man

April 12th, 2012
8:22 am

The other question is: would the same punishment have been handed out if the Valedictorian at Walton High School in East Cobb had been involved in something like this? Probably not – parents are too rich there. I remember the mailbox bashing incidents many years ago.

Inman Park Boy

April 12th, 2012
8:29 am

I totally agree: drop the felony charges, but do not alter the suspensions. And the class president’s lawyer is really making the kid sound stupid.

farce

April 12th, 2012
8:31 am

Students need to understand that they must accept the consequences for decisions that they make. It is unfortunate that he cannot attend his high school graduation, and I know that he is devastated. As a parent, I would be devastated too because this day is just as important for us as it is the child. I have mixed emotions about this topic.