There is a long-standing tradition of senior pranks in high school but how do you teach teens the difference between a funny joke and a felony?
“Pranks by the departing senior class can be funny and harmless, like the time someone loosed a pig in the hallway of Fulton County’s North Springs Hall School. But sometimes they can be destructive, criminal even, like in 2006 when someone used a sledge hammer to destroy a $5,000 statue of a ram outside Grayson High School in Gwinnett.”
“The wisdom to know the difference is crucial, especially in this competitive age when a criminal charge can damage career prospects.”
“Two dozen teenagers in Paulding County are now saddled with such worries after finding themselves before the local prosecutor this month. They had spray painted East Paulding High, some school vehicles and the entryway to a neighborhood.”
“District Attorney Dick Donovan said even the homeowners near the school asked him not seek prison for the youths. He gave the teens an offer aimed at ruining only their summer breaks: pre-trial diversion that would wipe away the felony vandalism charge in exchange for 400 hours of community service and $1,000 in fines and restitution.”
” ‘I knew right away I was not going to ruin anybody’s life,’ Donovan said Monday. ‘It was just a matter of hoping they would recognize what I was offering, and that they would take me up on it.’ ”
“They all accepted his offer, including the senior class president and potential valedictorian. Seniors had been painting a skull and crossbones in the intersection outside the school for about a decade, but this time they went too far, Donovan said.”
“But the line between serious and funny can be hard to draw, particularly for teenagers….”
“Kenneth Trump, a consultant who has worked with metro Atlanta schools on security issues, said administrators should have frank discussions with seniors. They should explain that a criminal charge can make or break a job interview down the road.”
” ‘In today’s world, where jobs are nonexistent, you don’t need any negatives on your record,’ said Trump, president of National School and Security Services in Cleveland, Ohio. ”
“Officials in DeKalb and Gwinnett say they warn students about the consequences of their acts. In Duluth, where Fitzgerald tried to immortalize the class of ‘95, local police send more patrols around the campuses during the last few weeks of school.”
“In Lawrenceville, Capt. Greg Vaughn said if kids damage a school, they can be charged with a felony, and the repairs can be expensive.”
” ‘They don’t understand that their mamas and daddies are going to have to pay,’ Vaughn said.”
“Seven years ago, seven teenagers were accused in a crime wave against the Sandy Springs Town Turtle art exhibit. A couple of the turtles, valued at as much as $5,000, were attacked with a hammer. Others went missing.”
” ‘They found one in a pond,’ said Lt. Steve Rose, of the Sandy Springs Police Department. ‘They said it was a high school prank, but it was a theft because those turtles weren’t cheap.’ The kids were sentenced to community service.”
“The former juvenile detective said a fine line can divide a joke from a crime. For guidance, he said, teens should imagine how they’d feel if someone pulled their prank on them.”
“Rose remembered an incident some three decades ago, when kids let a pig loose in the hallway at North Springs High. Police got involved but brought no charges. That one apparently fell on the safe side of the line.”
” ‘The only people it upset were the school people,’ Rose recalled. ‘We thought it was kind of funny.’
I think there are a bunch of elements at play that hurt the decision-making of high-school seniors. You’ve got a mob mentality where they’re goading each other into doing dumb things. On top of that, they think they are immortal and untouchable as seniors. And their brains aren’t fully developed even at that age. They don’t think things through.
I am so glad that District Attorney Dick Donovan had common sense about the spray-painting case and while punishing the teens didn’t put a black mark on their records that would stay with them forever.
You can’t always count on a level-headed, understanding DA, so how can parents/teachers/principals help teens understand where the line between prank and felony is and how to realize a dumb stunt could affect the rest of their lives?