Thursday, June 21, 2007

A Plea to Let a Punishment Fit the Prank

By PETER APPLEBOME
Our Towns
The New York Times
June 21, 2007

MONTROSE, N.Y.

It is not Iraq. It is not Katrina. It is not Virginia Tech.

There are many injustices far worse than those visited on the Montrose 19, the high school seniors in Westchester facing felony charges and not allowed to take part in their graduation, scheduled for tomorrow, because of a prank that went awry.

But sometimes small stories say a lot, so let us return to a familiar place: high school, graduation weekend, kids doing something dumb and adults doing something dumber.

For those who missed it, this tale began on June 10, a Sunday, when 19 students at Hendrick Hudson High School here, using a key they were not supposed to have, entered the school at night and left dozens of cheap alarm clocks in the shape of butterflies or houses scattered about. Some were covered with duct tape to make it harder to shut them off or remove the batteries. They were set to go off at 9:15 the next morning, the last day of classes.

The idea was for the seniors to respond to the alarms by walking out of the building in triumph — 13 years of school and one great senior prank accomplished. Instead, when the police responded to an alarm at the school, they thought the clocks might be bombs. State troopers with bomb-sniffing dogs descended on the premises. It soon became apparent that the clocks were just clocks, but the 19 students were charged with a second-degree felony, placing false bombs, and were barred from the graduation ceremonies. And 31 who contributed money for the clocks were forced to do community service, mostly cleanup at the school, in order to join their classmates at the graduation.

If the e-mail response to my Sunday column about the Montrose 19 and interviews around town are any indication, most people seem to see the students’ behavior as clearly inappropriate and deserving of some punishment. They also see a gross overreaction on the part of the adults that says a lot more about the on-edge world these kids are stepping into than whatever graduation wisdom is likely to be dispensed at the ceremony they’ll miss tomorrow.

“When a harmless prank results in 19 high school students being charged with felonies, we have surely traded our liberty for security, and faux security at that,” wrote one reader. “I would like to hear how we are safer if these kids go to jail.”

Well, it’s not likely anyone will go to jail, and chances are the charges will be reduced somewhere in the legal process. School officials said they were standing by their decision to bar the 19, who include many of the top students and athletes in the class, from participating in tomorrow’s ceremony. One father said that he and his son intended to show up and sit in the audience, though he did not want his name used for fear of further provoking school officials. “If they want to make a scene by kicking me out, I’ll make a bigger one by not leaving,” he said.

High school pranks may be as old as high school, but it seems that with Web sites offering a menu of pranks du jour and everything finding its way to YouTube, the standard of excellence is being raised at the same time that society’s tolerance level is being lowered. This is not a good thing.

TO take a much stupider example, there was probably never a good time for one recent prank in Stamford, Conn., where five teenagers staged phony kidnappings by stuffing a friend into a car trunk, speeding out of a crowded parking lot and recording the episode for posterity. This would be bad at any time, but is worse in the post-9/11 era.

Nothing in Montrose compared with any of that, and interviews with students indicated that part of the appeal of this prank was that it seemed harmless: no damage, nobody hurt. But if there are graduation life lessons here, you can begin with these.

For the students: Actions have consequences. It’s a pretty nervous world out there. Just because something seems harmless on first or second glance doesn’t mean one shouldn’t give it a third look. Life is like high school, only the penalties get bigger for messing up. Your parents and grandparents get only one chance to watch you graduate from high school. Don’t blow it.

For the adults: Actions have consequences. It’s a pretty nervous world out there. Just how intent are we on jacking up the paranoia level? Life is like high school, only we ought to be sure that the penalties fit the offense. Parents and grandparents get only one chance to see their kids graduate from high school. You’d better have an awfully good reason and no better alternative if you want to take that moment away.

E-mail: peappl@nytimes.com

1 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

It’s a pretty nervous world out there. Bullshit. America is f*cked up and the Dirty Bushies and Jesus Freaks must be held to account and brought to justice. It's a pretty cowardly America out there. With the exception of Iraq and a few other places, leave the world out of this. The American sheep voted for the Coward from Crawford, and those who trade liberty for a little fraudulent temporary security deserve neither.

6:28 PM  

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