Pranks add headaches for school leaders

By Chris Kieffer/NEMS Daily Journal

On the night before school, administrators’ minds are often filled with thoughts about schedules, teacher preparations and the readiness of the campus.
Then there are the concerns about possible senior pranks.
“It seems like they always happen at the start of school or the week before graduation,” said Monroe County Superintendent Scott Cantrell, noting that such hijinks can cause headaches for administrators. “I don’t think that is any different anywhere else.”
Such pranks were in the news recently when several members of the Tupelo High School senior class were charged with breaking into the Tupelo Buffalo Park on the night before school started and causing significant damage to the facility.
Four students were arrested and charged with felony malicious mischief in connection with the incident, in which vulgar words and “2013″ were spray-painted across property and the flank of a horse.
The amount of destruction caused by such antics varies.
On the first day of school, Saltillo High School seniors wrote “2013″ on sidewalks and on the front windows with chalk that was easily erasable, Lee County Superintendent Jimmy Weeks said.
Other pranks are more harmful.
Cantrell said seniors broke into one of his district’s schools a few years ago and caused serious destruction. Former Mooreville and Shannon High School Principal Robert Smith remembers when individuals once caused significant damage to school buses at MHS about a decade ago.
“To me, the line is drawn when you begin to damage property, whether it is school district property, private property or municipal property,” Weeks said. “…When these senior pranks bleed to property damage or financial cost or someone is upset, it is too far.”
Smith, who retired in May after 18 years as a high school principal, said he would often make students work after school or on Saturday to clean their damage.
“We would make them realize it isn’t nearly as much fun to take it off as they may have thought it was to put on,” he said. “When they see that end of it, it does more good than anything.”
There was, however, also a cost involved.
“For someone to prove a point or make a prank, there is nothing funny about it when you consider how little money these schools have to clean up,” Smith said. “It is a waste of taxpayer money.”
For students who did the pranks on school property, Smith said, there was latitude to suspend the students or send them to the alternative school.
When the damage occurs off campus, it more often is left to the police to handle.
“If a senior prank turns into bullying, we could discipline for off-campus behavior,” Weeks said. “If it is a destruction of property or vandalism, we have no local authority, and it would be left to law enforcement.”
Longtime Lee County School District attorney Gary Carnathan said Lee County’s policy allows the district to discipline students for off-campus behavior if those actions “cause a disruption in the general student population.”
Otherwise the district does not have such authority, he said. Cantrell said the policy is similar in Monroe County.
Weeks noted that Lee Schools do have the latitude to send students to the alternative school for a transition period after an extended time in jail.
Because of student privacy issues, the Tupelo Public School District cannot disclose how the students alleged to have participated in the Buffalo Park incident will be disciplined, if they are found guilty.
TPSD Superintendent Gearl Loden did say, however, that the district does have some latitude for punishing off-campus behavior.
“Like other districts, TPSD addresses the issues as they align to our policies,” Loden said. “We expect our students to model behavior which demonstrates honesty, respect, integrity and safety.
“There are situations where the school district can discipline students for off-campus behavior, such as if the off-campus behavior substantially disrupts the educational environment or where a student has been arrested or convicted of a crime and his or her presence causes a safety concern.”
Gary Smyly, executive director of the Mississippi Association of Secondary School Principals, said recent additions of security cameras to school campuses have helped reduce damage to school property.
“Cameras changed the whole concept,” he said.
For those incidents that occur off school grounds, Smyly said, the best solution is for the city and schools to collaborate to reduce them.
Sometimes, Smyly said, the solution means overcoming an existing ethos.
“Because this group of kids did whatever they did at the zoo, somewhere in Tupelo’s history, a previous group of seniors-to-be did some other dumb thing,” he said. “That is the culture out there that wants to leave a legacy of the Class of 2013.”
chris.kieffer@journalinc.com