N.J. senior student pranksters to avoid criminal charges
More than 60 senior pranksters at a New Jersey high school — who are suspected of smearing Vaseline on door handles, upending desks and trash cans, scrawling graffiti and urinating in public — will not face criminal charges, prosecutors announced Wednesday.
“In coming to this conclusion, we considered the impact that criminal convictions may have on individuals at such an early stage in their life,” Bergen County Prosecutor John Molinelli said. “This is also taking into consideration the nature of the offenses, the damage done to property as well as the original intent that the students had when initiating this ill-advised conduct.”
The prank had been organized by a small group of seniors at Teaneck High School in Teaneck, N.J., across the Hudson River from Bronx, N.Y. But as word spread, nearly 100 students — or nearly a third of the senior class — showed up after midnight May 1.
Police responding to three tripped burglar alarms surrounded the school, but many students were able to escape. Sixty-three students were arrested, including 24 older than 18 whom police charged with burglary and criminal mischief.
Parents and school officials were outraged that students were paraded in front of cameras in court and blamed police for exaggerated reports of the damage. On Tuesday night, with parents in attendance, the Teaneck City Council recommended that prosecutors show leniency.
In a five-page statement released Wednesday, Molinelli said he downgraded the charges against the adults to criminal trespassing and criminal mischief. Both are similar to misdemeanors under New Jersey law, and Molinelli said all of the students should be able to ask a judge to send them to diversionary programs that allow them to avoid a conviction on their records.
Molinelli said all but one of the 39 juveniles are eligible for a program that allows them to avoid a blemish on their record if they complete community service or the like.
After police officials said they found urine among the damage inside the school, parents and school officials snapped back, disputing that and other claims.
In explaining the damage Wednesday, Molinelli said, “It further appears that one or more students did urinate in an area of the building.”
Citing ongoing investigations, Teaneck Police and Teaneck Public Schools have denied open records requests filed by The Times to see photos and videos taken of the damage.
Molinelli said that besides the messed up furniture and doors, students raided the cafeteria and threw food into hallways. They used markers to write graffiti. Some students appear to have used marijuana or other controlled substances.
But Molinelli sought to push attention away from the damage. He said he was grateful that no students or police were injured. Writing that schools are considered a target by homeland security authorities, he said the large police response was warranted.
“While some of the students may have believed this to be a non-event, when you combine a large number of 17- and 18-year-old young adults in a dark building with police and service weapons present, the likelihood of serious bodily injury or death to a student or police officer increases dramatically,” he said. He credited police for their “restraint and admirable behavior.”
Answering a lingering question, Molinelli said the students didn’t appear to have forcibly broken into the school. Instead, they had one to three keys, including a master key, that gave them access to the school and rooms inside. How they got the keys is under investigation.
The school is replacing all of its locks, the prosecutor said.
“This is an important move and, while expensive, is necessary to retain security at the high school,” Molinelli said.
The high school and the district did not respond to requests for comment Wednesday afternoon.
Teaneck Police Detective Capt. Glenn O’Reilly told The Times that the department “supports the prosecutor’s decision.”
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