Freedom Area High School seniors fined $315 each for prank
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Red and white balloons in hand, a group of Freedom Area Senior High School seniors climbed down a flight of steps and over an iron fence in midnight darkness two weeks ago, then entered their school through a door they say was left unlocked.
Inside, they festooned the school's main hallway with balloons in their "Bulldog" school colors and arranged little piles of confetti atop their fellow students' lockers. All the while, several danced and mugged for the school video camera they knew was recording every moment of their senior prank.
But the next morning, school officials weren't laughing. They reported the incident to the local police, who cited 24 seniors -- about half of whom entered the high school while others painted sidewalks and left chalk messages on windows outside -- with simple trespassing charges that parents say will cost each of them $315.24.
Some of those parents say their children were simply trying to outdo past senior pranks and show their school spirit, albeit in an inappropriate way. They are stunned, they say, by what they consider to be school administrators' overreaction to a childhood prank that hurt no one and damaged nothing.
"I just feel it's overblown," said Terrance O'Connor of New Sewickley Township, whose 18-year-old son was among those cited.
"The school could have handled it themselves, could have ordered them to clean it up, but to call in the police and treat it as a $300 fine plus restitution just seemed like overkill to me."
The citations carry the legal weight of a traffic ticket and will not create a criminal record for the students, police say. Nevertheless, several parents say they are considering fighting the charges in an effort to avoid paying the fines, which were set by a local magistrate.
School officials say that students actually got a break from the consequences they could have faced. The door the students claim was left open actually was locked, they said, and police told them potential charges included breaking and entering -- a felony charge that could have carried jail time and created a criminal record.
The punishment was not overly harsh -- it was fair, said Robert Staub, principal of Freedom Area Senior High School.
"The message was, while they didn't have any malicious intent, you can't enter a public building while it's closed," said Mr. Staub, who will retire at the end of July. "That was the only thing I wanted them to understand. ... To do nothing would have sent the message that it's OK to enter a public building in the middle of the night and it's not -- it's a crime."
And while the students -- many of whom are honor students and most of whom plan to attend college in the fall -- are good kids, they needed to learn an important lesson, according to outgoing Freedom Area School District Superintendent Ron Sofo.
"Whether it's a senior prank or not, we want to send a message that we understand the nature, the idea, the genesis of a senior prank but there are some lines you shouldn't cross," said Mr. Sofo.
Mr. O'Connor acknowledges that entering the school at night was the wrong thing to do. But the students are children who could have learned the same lesson by less rigid means, he said.
First Published June 13, 2012 12:00 am