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Senior pranks: School districts draw line between fun, vandalism

As graduation nears, school districts are dealing with increasing pranks by high school seniors. These senior pranks, mostly harmless and done in good spirit, can escalate to vandalism. Where do school officials draw the line?

By Martha IrvineAssociated Press / June 7, 2012

Senior Zac Totten loads his bike into a truck during an organized bike ride to Kenowa Hills High School in Walker, Mich on May 22, 2012. Sixty-five graduating students who participated in the bike ride to school were suspended by the principal for breaking the "no pranks" rule.

Chris Clark/The Grand Rapids Press/AP

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Chicago

Well, it's that time of year again. Time to stash a dead fish somewhere to stink up the school hallways. Time to drop tennis balls on the heads of people in the lobby. Time to cover your soon-to-be alma mater with Post-It notes.

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For high school seniors, it's prank time — or "structured mayhem" in the words of Mindy Utay, a therapist who works with teens.

It's a rite of passage as graduation looms, mostly harmless fun but sometimes a escalating into vandalism. This spring alone, windows at school have been smashed, walls and sidewalks spray painted, and paint poured down steps. Cars have been flipped. Property has been damaged from California to Kentucky to Maryland.

As a result, school administrators are rethinking exactly what constitutes a prank and where to draw the line — and finding that's not always easy to do.

This year, the rule at Kenowa Hills High School in Walker, Mich., was clear: No senior pranks allowed.

But organizing themselves on Facebook, a group of graduating seniors there decided to ride bicycles, en masse, on the last day of school. They arranged for a police escort along the 3-mile route. The mayor even brought them doughnuts before they headed out to what was supposed to be a funny surprise for everyone else at school.

The principal was not amused.

She thought the students had put themselves in danger by riding along a busy thoroughfare. Traffic was disrupted. Drivers caught up in it, including some teachers, were late for work. In the principal's mind, the seniors had broken the "no pranks" rule, and she came down hard.

"But we didn't really see it as a prank. We saw it more as a senior send-off," says Sarah Pechumer, one of the 65 graduating students who participated. "It was harmless. It was arranged. It was legal."

And in the rowdy history of senior pranks, it was relatively benign. Recall the letter sent to parents at California's San Dieguito Academy in 2006, informing them that henceforth condoms would be distributed to students at all dances. Or the night at New York's Nyack High School, when seniors — with the blessing of their principal — arranged 1,000 school desks on a field to spell out "2008." Then, under cover of darkness, other pranksters (perhaps from the Class of 2009) re-arranged the desks in the shape of a giant penis.

Former students at one high school outside Hartford, Conn., still recall how their principal inadvertently sent them into hysterics after some seniors removed the plastic balls from the computer mice in a school lab.

The principal got on the intercom and began a lengthy speech about needing the "mouse balls" back — a result that even the students hadn't anticipated.

After a secretary interrupted him, he stammered and continued by asking for "the apparatus necessary for the computer mice."

"As long as it doesn't get out of control, I think it is healthy," says Utay, a therapist and clinical social worker in private practice in Manhattan. "It's something they look forward to after all the pressure — a chance to take back some of the control. It's rebellion against that pressure, empowerment. It marks the end of the high school experience."

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