CLEWISTON — The dubious tradition of high school seniors pranking their institutions and classmates as they graduate to the next stage of life crossed the line between fun and harm this year, at least to chagrined Hendry County School District authorities.
At LaBelle High School, it was “just” a fake memorandum that a few seniors produced, stating that there would be a “Mandatory Penis Inspection,” which was sent to email groups including school faculty, staff and students. Although most parents recognized it as just a joke, others expressed concern about the apparent security breach.
Although most parents recognized it as just a joke, others expressed concern about the security breach. LHS’s dean of students sent out an apology to parents, but exactly how the students managed to execute such a prank is still being investigated, and it prompted alarm among some parents. One called it “something funny, but at the same time it was something scary.”
LHS’s dean of students sent out an apology to parents, but how the students managed to execute the prank was explained later. According to a district Information Technology Department employee, they did it by copying and editing a screenshot of a school district memo and then including it as an image in the email. No hacking of the district’s email system was involved, he said.
Still, it prompted alarm among some parents. One called it “something funny, but at the same time it was something scary.”
Damages in thousands
At Clewiston High School, however, probably nobody but the perpetrators found any humor in the “prank” played by over three dozen youngsters, with the tally of damages now up to roughly $23,000 to repair. In fact, it was the subject of many speakers at last week’s regular school board meeting.
According to the district, that much damage was done when 35 CHS senior students, among a slightly larger group, spray-painted sidewalks and buildings, also tearing curtains in the auditorium. The principal suspended and fined several students, and around a dozen of them may not be allowed to walk with their classmates at graduation, which is set for 8 p.m. Friday night, May 17, including some of the top graduates grades-wise and a few Collegiate Academy students who’d graduated the previous week with their associate’s degrees from Florida SouthWestern State College.
Several parents and students appeared at the May 7 Hendry County School Board meeting to argue they should still have that chance.
Paul Puletti, superintendent of Hendry County schools, told the board that one parent had signed up to speak on a non-agenda item about the vandalism that had taken place at CHS. But then several of the students also asked to speak.
He said each would have three minutes to talk.
The first was reluctant to go to the podium, but he said, “The board will hear you better up here.”
“This is something that I’ve waited for years to watch my kids do,” the mother said. She said she was out of town at the time, but her son had even asked permission to participate in “this organized event, because that’s what it was” and that from him telling her it was going to involve half of the senior class, she presumed that it was “not going to get too wild or crazy.”
She said she thought that it would be just “some eggs and toilet paper” and that they’d clean it up the next day “and we’re going to look back and laugh about it.
Punishments meted out
“Well, that’s not how it turned out,” she explained, saying “I found out that there were kids involved from other schools” and some who already had graduated.
“My stepdaughter got punished (with) 16 hours of community service, up to a $100 fine, and she was suspended for a week. While my son got the same punishment, he was kicked off the baseball team, which had been his whole life since T-ball. And he’s not allowed to walk at graduation.” She questioned the severity of the discipline.
“That’s why I’m here. My son has been remorseful. He wrote a letter of apology to the principal. He showed up Saturday for community service. I even spoke to the principal, and I said, ‘Look, give him additional time. Make him pay more fines. Whatever he needs to do. So my son could walk with his class,’” she related tearfully.
Mr. Puletti interrupted her, saying “You’re torturing yourself, and I don’t want you to do that.”
He said: “We’re punishing the wrong people by not allowing them to walk. So what I’m going to do is support the principals’ decision, which was the suspension, the community service, the restitution.” Mr. Puletti added that he couldn’t possibly overlook or excuse the behavior “in good conscience and good faith, having been a grandparent and a parent, because all of those children trespassed. None of those children called the school when they saw that it got out of hand. Nobody showed remorse, really, until they saw what had happened.
“The children were asked to disperse by the police department who saw them gathering in the parking lot, and they didn’t do that,” he continued. “So I feel that that the punishment of (those) who will not walk is valid. I could sit here and support none of them walking better than I can trying to figure out who walks and who doesn’t. And … the sheriff’s department had the same problem when they were going through to look at pressing charges. They said, ‘We can’t pick and choose who to press charges on.’
‘No such thing as a good prank’
“I stand with the principals,” he said, allowing that they could “then let those folks walk … with the caveat that if they do not make restitution or arrangements with the school, or pay the community service, then they will not be able to walk graduation night. This is an exercise that belongs to the school,” he told the mother.
But “there is no such thing as a good prank, because it can get out of hand very easily,” Mr. Puletti stated.
Other students stood and expressed their sorrow, remorse and, in some cases, shock at the discipline meted out.
“As days passed, I realized my mistakes, and understood why everyone was so ashamed of me. I brought shame to myself and to my family, I’ve come to ask for my seat back and my speech at graduation,” one student said.
But one gentleman who said he’d been a taxpayer and resident of Hendry County for decades pressed the board on whether there would be any criminal charges brought. He said he thought there should be legal consequences for the students who did the damage.
“If it was done to your home, how would you feel about that?” one board member echoed his point, asking a student.
Another questioned one of the students involved how they got inside the school. Mr. Puletti said all aspects of the incidents were still under investigation and that he didn’t wish to air any more details in a public forum, but he did say he did not believe that any doors had been propped open. There was then a short discussion on how much better security would cost, such as a card key system — it’s very expensive, staff pointed out.
The board ultimately took no action on the discipline, leaving it up to the principals; however, members asked for and Mr. Puletti promised a report when the investigation was complete, and also an examination of getting better security and budgeting for the expense.