A Prank Gone Wrong
School Administrator, April 2020
Scenario: As a “senior prank” two weeks before graduation, about 20 students drive four cars onto the high school athletic fields causing $20,000 worth of damage to the infields and turf. Cameras record license plate numbers. Ten seniors confess and implicate a dozen others plus 90 plotters on a Snapchat network. The school board president’s twin daughters were in one of the cars but not driving and the president plans to hand out their diplomas at graduation. As superintendent, what do you do?
Pass the Tylenol! Given the highly charged emotions around graduation, I’d recommend clear, quick communication. The superintendent will need to call the board president and then alert the board immediately and share how she will follow up with communication and disciplinary actions. She should prepare an e-mail blast across the district and social media communication to all families relating the facts of the incident and reminding parents and students how this could have been prevented if someone had reported what they heard on Snapchat.
Another strongly worded communication should be sent to the parents of the Snapchatters reminding them of their responsibility to let their children know of the serious present and future implications of misusing social media. This should include notification that students are being put on probationary notice for the remainder of the year and will be subject to serious disciplinary consequences for any further misbehavior.
As for disciplining the riders, parents should be notified by phone that the students are receiving a Saturday detention during which they will be working on repairing fields and cleaning the grounds. Turning to the drivers, the superintendent will need to come down hard.
Parents should be contacted by phone immediately and informed that the drivers have been reported to the police, that students are receiving out-of-school suspensions, that because the offense is egregious, it must be reported to any college the students plan to attend, that financial restitution is required and that while they will receive diplomas, they will not be able to participate in the graduation ceremony.
The superintendent needs to use the entirety of his/her communication and leadership skills with the board president and the board so that they clearly understand how the superintendent will process her decision regarding the consequences for this action. This is one of those times when the relationship (positive or negative) between the board and superintendent will shine through to others.
The superintendent needs to communicate clearly with the board president that whatever consequences these students receive, those consequences will apply to his daughters as well, as they were in one of the cars and participated in the prank. Therefore, the superintendent cannot guarantee the board president will be handing out diplomas to his daughters. The superintendent should help the board president (and other board members) understand how important it is to stay as neutral as possible and allow her and staff members to do their job.
These students’ actions were of a very serious nature, resulting in major destruction of public property and the distinct possibility the students will be barred from participating in graduation. The superintendent and staff must talk to law enforcement, examine relevant district policies and state statutes and review suspension and expulsion options.
Whatever consequences result for these students, it will be a political football for the board and the superintendent. The political ramifications of the decision will be exacerbated if the board president continues to insist that regardless of what happened, his daughters will get their diplomas on stage from him.
Like the board president, these students’ parents may oppose any consequence that would prevent graduation participation. Some parents may question any consequence and contend this was just “kids being kids” and recall that they too participated in senior pranks in high school. They will need clear communication from the superintendent and the board that today these activities are viewed differently and that policies and statutes often define consequences.
On the other side of the equation, parents of seniors who weren’t involved in the destruction of athletic fields may oppose the participants’ part in graduation and see it as unfair to their students. No matter what the final decision regarding the students’ acts, this is a no-win situation for the superintendent. She must carefully balance her decision given the “sacred” view parents, community and students have for the ritual of graduation and what school district policy requires.
How does this fit into the history of senior pranks and administrative responses to the “pranksters” in this school district? What communications about the potential consequences for senior pranks were made to students and families prior to this episode? The answers matter because students’ own expectations of reasonable consequences need to be taken into account in developing an appropriate response to the planners and perpetrators of this damaging action.
Teenagers frequently make dumb decisions without an eye to future consequences — in particular when they are in large groups. There’s good neuroscience and social science backing up this insight. It’s also self-evident to anyone who has spent much time around gaggles of teens. This is one reason that it is important to be explicit with students about the serious nature of even silly “pranks” and to be clear and consistent about the consequences that can result from co-planning pranks, not just carrying them out.
Regardless of the involvement of the school board presidents’ daughters, the superintendent should not use the graduation ceremony itself as venue through which to punish students (say, by excluding them). Graduation represents the culmination of four years of hard work and is a celebration of families’ commitment as much as of students’ achievement. At the same time, the superintendent could withhold diplomas from participating students until they had worked off their portion of the costs through summer community service. Students could walk across the stage but receive an empty envelope.
How to balance the responsibility of the drivers, passengers and Snapchat co-plotters, as well as how to credit those seniors who confessed versus those who waited to be caught is also a complex and challenging conundrum. I am happy not to have to answer these questions of comparative and collective responsibility!
The good news is that with two weeks until graduation, there is time for discipline, restitution and the potential to walk at the ceremony. The primary responsibility for addressing this situation rests with the principal. The superintendent can support and advise the principal on process but should not play a major role because any appeal would need to be heard at that level.
The incident — far more serious than a “prank” — violated the law, and the principal needs to file a police report. The individuals involved likely will be charged with malicious and willful destruction of property and face court-issued punishments. While the police undertake their investigation, the school should proceed with its own probe.
The students’ flagrant misconduct caused serious damage to the school’s property, disrupted important culminating athletic events, disrespected the community that invested in these students’ education and demonstrated thoughtlessness and destructiveness by many senior class members as they prepare to transition into adulthood. All students who participated need to accept responsibility, and they and their parents need to be involved in addressing the damage done to the fields.
The negative impression this incident attaches to the school and its students will take years to erase. It is important the students understand the long-term consequences of their actions and express remorse in a way that demonstrates to the community the lessons they have learned from this incident.
The initial task for the principal is to distinguish the categories of responsibility among the drivers, passengers and plotters. The punishment for each may be different. Discipline could range from detention and community service for some of the plotters, to suspension from school and senior activities, community service and restitution for those more actively involved. The drivers will face the most serious punishment, although passengers were, in effect, accomplices to the destruction of property. The most important consequences for all involved are that they share in the cost of repair and offer a public apology to the community as a prerequisite to walking at graduation.
As part of the disciplinary process, the school administration needs to meet with the parents of these students to discuss the seriousness of the incident and the requirement that each student contribute to the cost of the repairs prior to graduation. In addition, the students need to commit to comport themselves at the graduation in a manner that reflects positively on the class and makes the ceremony a meaningful one for all. The board president’s daughters should face the same consequences as any of the other passengers. It doesn’t matter who the parent is. What matters is the role the student played in the incident.
Walking at graduation is a privilege, not a right. Still, graduation is a very important rite of passage. While the consequences should reflect the seriousness of the incident, administration should provide students with an opportunity to make amends for their error so that they can participate in the graduation ceremony.
At a more fundamental level, however, this incident raises a number of questions that parents and the school administration should ask themselves as they reflect on why this may have happened. Is there something about the school or community culture that fostered an attitude among students where destruction of property was simply viewed as a prank? Given how many students were involved, why didn’t one or more students come forward to express concern to an adult or voice objections to fellow students? How can parents and the school join forces to change students’ attitudes or perceptions so that an incident like this won’t happen again? The answers to these questions will be more important in the long run than the particular consequences experienced by students in this senior class.
Each month, School Administrator draws on actual circumstances to raise an ethical decision-making dilemma in K-12 education. Suggestions for dilemmas may be submitted to email@example.com.
The Ethical Educator panel consists of Shelley Berman, superintendent, Andover, Mass.; Meira Levinson, professor of education, Harvard University; Maggie Lopez, retired superintendent, Colorado Springs, Colo.; and Glenn "Max" McGee, president, Hazard, Young, Attea and Associates in Schaumburg, Ill. Expanded analyses appear in the magazine’s online edition.
ILLUSTRATION © BY David Clark