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Some high school senior pranks go too far, resulting in arrests

Which high school senior pranks get students arrested and which ones don't
Officials search for ways to let high school seniors have their fun without doing damaging pranks

Taking naps in weird places. Leaving cars where they don’t belong. Using water and plastic wrap in downright annoying ways. All normal senior pranks.

Peeing in the hallways? Not so much.

This week's end-of-year celebration involving urination at Teaneck High School in New Jersey has been regarded as disgusting by most commenters on social media, including other students at the school.

Police responding to a tripped burglar alarm about 2 a.m. Thursday found hallways littered with toilet paper, balloons, hot dogs, petroleum jelly – and urine. They arrested 63 students, 24 of whom were at least 18. Those 24  were arraigned as adults on charges of criminal mischief and burglary. The Bergen County prosecutor’s office is reviewing their cases and could reduce them to less serious infractions.

The Teaneck Police Department did not immediately respond to a question about how the 39 juvenile cases would be handled.

Ken Trump, who has advised schools on safety and security measures for 30 years, cautioned that there are pranks, and then there are pranks. 

“When you’re doing something lighthearted, that’s one thing,” Trump said. “When you’re talking about urinating and breaking into an alarmed structure, that’s another.”

For decades, schools have struggled to keep a small group of students from getting unruly. At some schools, a culture of pranking makes things worse as the senior class hopes to do something crazier than the previous class. Around-the-clock surveillance and stern warnings have been used to reprogram that sort of gamesmanship.

“Due to vandalism that has taken place during recent years, all pranks will be dealt with as an issue of trespassing, vandalism, and defiance,” read a message last month from Patterson High School in central California. “Inevitably these pranks cross the line and are destructive and demeaning to our campus and students.”

Among the things that have sent students to jail for a night or led to suspensions and missed graduations: smashing windows, pouring sand in gas tanks, dismantling staircases, abusing animals, pouring bleach on a football field, urinating in public, and painting excessive amounts of graffiti (even if washable). Pornography and racist messages also are problematic at best.

“They could be viewed as pranks from the teenage minds, but they could cost school districts and taxpayers a lot of money,” Trump said in a telephone interview from New York. “School administrators have no choice when pranks cross the line.”

Students at several other high schools across the country have engineered what appeared to be less consequential pranks in recent days. 

At one school, students threw underwear atop tree branches. At another, a classroom was liberally decorated with toilet paper. At another, seniors "napped" in sleeping bags in the hall while eating cake. Because these sorts of pranks can be easily cleaned up and don’t leave any permanent damage, they rarely lead to punishment.

Some school officials have tried to undercut the desire to pull off dangerous pranks by sanctioning smaller ones, or even letting students into school overnight while monitoring them.

Trump said educators and parents needed to come together to find a way for seniors to leave their mark in a creative, constructive way.

“Adults should give them some type of activity to have a memorable moment with their graduation that’s fun and social and in which they are contributing to the school,” he said. “Because horseplay can lead to loss of judgment and a loss of self-control.”

Mission Viejo High School Principal Ray Gatfield wrote to parents in bold type in March, "There is no such thing as a safe senior prank."

Besides a warning, Vista Murrieta High School in San Diego County had students sign a senior contract, agreeing that “if I participate in a Senior prank, I jeopardize the privilege of participating in the Senior activities, including the graduation ceremony.”

Some parents in Teaneck expressed immediate anger that all of the students found at the school early Thursday were rounded up. But Trump said they could argue for a punishment that fits the alleged crime when the case reaches a judge.

“If you don’t set down some consequences this year, it’s only going to be escalated next year,” Trump said. “Schools can’t turn a blind eye.”

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