How do you teach teens the difference between a prank and a felony?

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?

From The AJC:

“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?

42 comments Add your comment

K's Mom

April 24th, 2012
5:56 am

I think this is like sex and texting while driving. It has to be an ongoing coversation starting waaaaaaay before senior year. Anytime you see vandalism and it is appropriate talk to your kids about it.

I went to a Gwinnett County HS and the class following ours cut down the Bradford Pear Tree that the first principal of the school planted. It was in the courtyard where we ate lunch and it smelled bad in the spring. I am sure whoever did it thought it was a simple prank, but it was a big deal. From what I understand no one ever found out who did it.


April 24th, 2012
6:59 am

A prank is putting a dead squirrel under the principal’s car. A felony is stuffing said dead squirrel into the gas tank.

True story.

cobb mom

April 24th, 2012
7:03 am

Parents spend too much time making excuses for their children rather than teaching them correct behavior. It needs to begin before school age, morals can’t be taught overnight.


April 24th, 2012
7:06 am

However, for most people, “prank” is what my kid does, “felony” is when your kid does it.


April 24th, 2012
7:53 am

I guess I take issue with your first statement “There is a long-standing tradition of senior pranks in high school …”. Since when? There was “Senior Skip Day” at my high school (not in the South), but kids who skipped always got caught and there were repercussions if a student participated. Lesson: don’t participate in Skip Day – you’ll be sorry. The school that my niece and nephew (now in their early 20’s ) attended also did not tolerate any senior “pranks”.

Parents can help their children by teaching them right from wrong from a young age. This has been a “teachable moment” for my 15 year old – what these kids did was wrong and there are consequences.

Voice of Reason

April 24th, 2012
7:56 am

Do I even have to say this again?

Teach your kids the difference between right and wrong and reality and fantasy and that their actions and decisions have consequences.

Again, why is this so hard for people to understand?

On another note, that valedictorian must not be too bright to get caught up in this.


April 24th, 2012
8:02 am

We had Senior Ditch Day. My father warned me not to ditch school, but I was going to no matter what.

And yes, even back in my day, there were Senior Pranks. Harmless, like decorating our Knight in our cross-town rival’s colors……that kind of stuff.


April 24th, 2012
8:07 am

Oh, puh-leeze. The mob mentality/peer pressure/whatever you want to call it is pretty powerful, but I have to really wonder about the judgement of ANYONE who suddenly thinks it’s a good idea to spray paint a car. Hello? I would think that any 18 year old ready to venture out into the world would have the sense to know that you DON’T DAMAGE OTHER PEOPLE’S PROPERTY. The “neighbors” are a lot more forgiving than I am — if those little hooligans had spray painted MY car, I sure wouldn’t be saying, “Oh, it was just a prank, don’t be mean to them!” I’d be pressing charges — little jerks. And if it had been MY kid doing it, well, you know, they may have to delay college for a semester or so, until they work some menial job in order to pay off the damage they had done. I’d be damned if I’d be paying the tab for their mischief and then let them happily wander off to college.


April 24th, 2012
8:37 am

My senior year, a group of seniors spread the entire courtyard of our school in cow manure one night. Needless to say, it smelled TERRIBLE. They were also not very smart and were bragging about it the next morning, so it took the principal all of an hour or so to round up all 15 or so of them. However, none of them were charged with a felony. Rather, the principal made them clean the whole mess up themselves.


April 24th, 2012
8:38 am

Thank you DB!!!!!!

Can I get an Amen?????

mystery poster

April 24th, 2012
8:52 am

I would think that a scared pig let loose in the school could cause a lot of damage.

non committal mind reader

April 24th, 2012
8:56 am

pranks are non-destructive of property (or generally costs only time to clean up), and not physically harmful to individuals.

non committal mind reader

April 24th, 2012
9:01 am

and, BTW, High School seniors are, for the most part, full legal adults at the time of graduation. It’s disingenuous to label them as “teens” (though technically true), and maybe a little to late to try to be teaching them the difference between a prank and a felony. They KNOW the difference. If they can perform calculus, purchase a rifle, join the army, smoke, get married and have kids, then give them some credit for knowing the difference and blame when they violate the law.


April 24th, 2012
9:02 am

The lowerclassmen (on the school busses) were greeted to a HUGE Ronald McDonald waving cheerfully from atop the school library at Wheeler in 1988. I recall the owner of the McD’s that had their mascot temporarily relocated was furious and wanted serious reprocussions to those repsonsible. Brad Sanderson, then Principal, donned his Ray Bans (I did say it was the ’80’s) and told him to chill it was a joke. I do believe those responsible (about 4 Senior males) did have some penatly to pay.

Same class 6 month earlier, before the Powder Puff game held an “Egg Fest” at Terrell Mill Park. Several cars and the county park were “vandalized” by the eggs….3 Saturdays of cleaning up the park seemed to get the kids to know the difference!


April 24th, 2012
9:08 am

DB…exactly what I was thinking…when something is damaged, it is quite different.

We are a fun loving family and have done silly stuff with our kids. This may seem trite but I meet children who do not even know how to laugh at a joke or are anxious when everyone is singing loudly ( I know some children do have sensitivity issues). It is obvious, to me, that some families are very reserved and never cut up or have fun. On the other hand, perhaps some families have not explained that destroying property is not simply fun. TPing a house, filling a car with styro peanuts, or putting flamingoes ( sp?) in a yard is not the same as spray painting…to me. I would NOT be happy if someone spray painted my car and my car is not even an expensive one to own!

My children have always known that there will be consequences from their parents, if not from anyone else. That is just the way we have done it around here. Now, I have a very minimal idea about what is going on with them as they are in college. If things get out of hand, I will probably find out but they are old enough to have to deal with it themselves.

If your child is doing this kind of thing when they are still under your roof, can you trust them to head out to college and live in the midst of peer pressure and other students who may not be discerning?


April 24th, 2012
9:11 am

The seniors at my high school (also in Gwinnett) often painted the road, but nothing else that I remember. A group of guys in my class ‘borrowed’ the Horsetown horse from the roof and put it over the portico to the school, looking out over the student parking lot. It was hilarious to see our mascot greeting everyone on some random Monday! It wasn’t damaged, so I don’t think any charges were filed. Sure would like to know how they got it up/down.

Simple question – if it damages someone’s property or creates such a mess that they’ll have to spend a lot of time/money to clean it up…don’t do it.

Totally off topic – Anyone else completely fed up with this stupid Meebo bar? Can’t even see what I’m typing.


April 24th, 2012
9:15 am

Again…you are responsible for your own actions, and your actions have consequences.

That’s what I grew up hearing, and I hope I have passed that on to my kids.


April 24th, 2012
9:16 am

AND you chose the behavior, you chose the consequence….


April 24th, 2012
9:17 am

@DB — very well stated!!

As for the Meebo bar, just go a quick Google search for “disable cross stie scripting” and, once this is disabled in your browser. then no more Meebo…


April 24th, 2012
9:18 am

PS – You will receive a “notice” at the top of your browser stating that cross site scripting is disabled but this you will already know and you can ignore.


April 24th, 2012
9:20 am

However, for most people, “prank” is what my kid does, “felony” is when your kid does it.

Very well said Catlady!

I agree with DB that the Paulding County case was way across the line of criminal vandalism instead of harmless prank. Still, I’m glad the teens were given a chance to pay fines and do community service instead of jail time. (Though I would have been fine with them getting some jail time as well).

When I was high school (nearly 25 years ago) you could count on kids TP’ing the school court yard on Halloween and doing the same to the principal and unliked teachers yards on nights where faculty meetings and open house type events were held at the school. During my junior year someone sprayed a couple of fire extinquishers all over the halls and classrooms on the science wing. Everyone knew who was responsible (because they always bragged) but nothing was ever done because they were star athletes and/or teachers kids. It was just extra work for the janitors to have to clean up the next morning.

We did have senior skip day and most of us (including me) participated. It was an unexcused absence which was no big deal to most of us and it inspired a few teachers to give pop quizzes to the few in class but I was a straight A student back then so my GPA wasn’t really effected. Other teachers just made it a “Free Day” to the seniors who didn’t skip and just let them talk or play board games.


April 24th, 2012
9:32 am

I was a high school senior once, and my brain was fully developed enough to know the difference between a prank and a crime. Have we begun to devolve?


April 24th, 2012
9:46 am

I think what the kids did was terrible, but I’m glad the adults involved didn’t push for jail time. 400 hours of community service + $1,000 fine + restitution seems like a reasonable, deserved sentence to me.

library volunteer

April 24th, 2012
9:50 am

any way to disable meebo bar in firefox?


April 24th, 2012
10:08 am

Thanks, me. I ended up also having to adding to a restricted site list. No more meebo bar!! Who needs IT when you have the Momania regulars?


April 24th, 2012
10:43 am

Exactly DB! A prank does not cause property damage or bodily injury -a felony does.


April 24th, 2012
10:54 am

Agree with DB….I knew way before I was 17 or 18 that damaging or taking the property of other people was a crime.


April 24th, 2012
11:13 am

Q: How do you teach teens the difference between a prank and a felony?

A: With a bamboo cane.


April 24th, 2012
11:16 am

In all seriousness, I was arrested in college for removing a road cone from a police barricade. It was 2 AM and I was using it as a megaphone at the time.

I was charged with “Theft By Taking” and even though it was later dismissed, this arrest has come up on every background check I’ve ever had, and I’ve had to explain the story with a bit of a hassle at my last two employers. I almost didn’t get my current position because of it.

Young people need to know that things that seem innocent at the time can follow you around for a long time.


April 24th, 2012
11:38 am

Studies have shown that a teen’s ‘decision-making’ center actually is turned off (or at least toned down) whenever they have a ‘buzz’ from any kind of thrill. This means that if they are really having a good time, they actually lose the ability to think as clearly. Couple that with the general lack of understanding of future consequences and you have a recipe for problems like this.

Parents need to make sure teens are aware that they will not always be thinking clearly and that they need to plan what they will do in certain situations Before they get into them. Let them know that they will possibly not make the right decision if they wait to decide in the midst of an adrenaline rush while out with their friends.

@anne – there is a long-standing tradition of senior pranks. My dad graduated in the early 1950’s and their senior class reassembled a car in a hallway of the school. In one school I attended, the teachers actually got the upper hand by decorating the senior locker area in the spring.


April 24th, 2012
11:46 am

@library volunteer: To remove Meebo using Firefox: Go to Tools->Add-Ons. Choose the Meebo extension (in the Extensions category), and click Remove

Nasty little bugger. I hate it.


April 24th, 2012
11:57 am

Jarvis – I think that all things can be corrected by caning, too.

I would add “and can be easily corrected or undone by the perpetrator” to “a prank does not include property damage or bodily harm”. I don’t think the janitor should be forced to clean up the prank and the parents should definitely require pay-back if there is a financial penalty/payment.

And yes, you should know better by senior year.


April 24th, 2012
12:25 pm

The only just laws are those that speak to the harm of another or their property. That is what you should be teaching your children. All other laws are unjust and if they care at all about freedom and liberty then they will work to insure that only JUST laws are made and are enforced. Tragically if our “leaders” and our police focussed only on REAL and JUST laws there would be more resources available to actually address these real problems.

Vandalism is a crime in that it involves the destruction of property. Things like even simple Toilet Papering of a building, etc. are also a crime in that they represent a financial taking (the money that will have to be spent for cleanup, etc.) even though the damage isn’t permanent. Many schools have generally been very tollerant of such “pranks” like TPing, chalk drawings, etc. but it does not change the truth of these actions as property crimes.

If YOU understand that the property of another is to be respected UNDER ALL CIRCUMSTANCES and pass that along to your children, this will be a far better world. I don’t know why this should be a difficult question to answer. Somewhere (and I won’t add commentary so this doesn’t end up too political), we lost respect for private property rights. Now everything has become little more than a means to someone else’s ends. That’s how pranks went from the completely harmless to the destructive. It all starts at the top (parents).


April 24th, 2012
12:45 pm

@TWG – my post got flagged. I’m sure b/c I used a “profanity”.

Sid Vicious

April 24th, 2012
1:00 pm

From The AJC:

“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.”


How is this funny and harmless? It’s animal cruelty and a felony.
And what is “loosed”?

This publication is a gathering place for the mentality challenged.

Class of 2000

April 24th, 2012
1:25 pm

When I was an underclassman at an East Cobb High School, some senior boys thought it would funny to pour baby oil on the tile floor in the center of the school where everyone walked. Well it was all fun to watch people slide on the floor but then someone fell and broke their leg. The seniors stopped laughing real quick.


April 24th, 2012
3:03 pm

@Enlightened…Somewhere (and I won’t add commentary so this doesn’t end up too political), we lost respect for private property rights.

I sat next to a older lady ( I am 52) on an airplane and she was mentioning that, when she was a girl, you NEVER walked in/on someone else’s yard without an invite.

Our neighbor and her children cut through our back yard weekly, to get to the tennis court, as they would otherwise have to walk to the end of the block….she has never asked if we mind. We really do not, until they leave Coke cans and candy bar wrappers in our yard. Across the street, the son smokes outside ( with friends) and I found over a dozen cigarette butts in our front yard. My husband had a talk with him and it is has helped. Seems odd to me that neighbors would not be modeling respect of property that does not belong to them. Our house backs up to another person’s yard and the kids cut through that yard too. Guess I am way too old…my kids were not allowed to cut through random yards unless they were with the kids who lived in said yard.

Trolls Bane

April 24th, 2012
3:36 pm

There should be zero tolerance of such behavior. We, as a society, go way to easy on the little things, especially with young people, when those actions should be harshly punished.


April 24th, 2012
6:03 pm

During my teen years I was quite an accomplished vandal and knew EVERYTIME the difference between a prank and what was probably a misdeamanor/felony.

These kids who plead ignorance are only showing their ignorance.

But for those kids reading.

Causing damage that results in damage > $1000? Well you are looking at a felony. Below the $1000 line of demarcation you are probably looking at a misdeameanor. TPing, egging etc is considered a prank and should be treated as such.


April 25th, 2012
5:50 am

Here’s a real life example:

High school boys got an archery target – a life-like whitetailed deer. They put it out on a gravel road in the country after dark to watch what oncoming cars would do when an apparent deer loomed in their head lights. A car approached, swerved, rolled over and came to a stop.

That was bad enough. What happened next was worse – the young men, having seen the results of their prank grabbed the evidence and ran. The occupants of the car were badly injured and in desperate need of medical attention. And alone.

I’m sorry I can’t find a link for this one. It made the news a few years ago not because the perpetrators were convicted on criminal charges, but because they were allowed to finish playing their last high school football season before they served their sentences. Apparently nearly killing someone isn’t reason enough to get kicked off the team or benched. In my home state of Ohio. :(


April 25th, 2012
8:13 am

When my daughter was a senior, a senior prank carried out by a few people was deemed inappropriate. The principal spoke with the senior class and said there would be no more pranks and to not let a “few bad apples” spoil the rest of the school year for the rest of the class. The next day, the next senior prank… Almost every single senior brought the prinicipal an apple. By the end of the day, there were a quite a few bushels of apples in the school office. Everyone thought it was hilarious and several teachers took them home to make pies, applesauce, etc.

A simple prank. No one was hurt. No property was damaged.


April 25th, 2012
7:01 pm

I was in high school in the 70’s and my friends and I did a very mild senior prank that did not damage property or cause any particular problems. We certainly knew the limits and how to stay within them. I don’t understand when people say that teens’ decision making skills are not fully developed or that research shows it is “turned off” when in a thrill situation. I fully understood, at age 16, 17, etc. right from wrong. So, how does that research explain all of us who “did know” right from wrong? There are plenty of kids that do understand, which leads me to think there are other differences in how these kids are taught and raised.

While some may consider egging a prank, a few years ago, some teens were arrested in Cobb County after egging a house, when the owner got angry and called police. While they didn’t serve jail time, the teens and families had to go through several months of stress, along with lawyer fees and hearings. Ultimately, the homeowner just asked the judge to have the kids write an apology letter. A simple prank can be costly to the families when you have an arrest and legal fees. The bottom line is you don’t know whether the homeowner will involve police or not with some of these pranks that seem relatively harmless.