Annals of Zero Tolerance: Eradicating Great Pranks
It takes more than good old guts and wit to pull off a good prank these days. You also have to have the fortitude (or brazen confidence) to ignore the fact that schools, police and other authorities have bought into the zero tolerance game and will nail you to the wall for entertaining yourself and those around you.
A viral video that's bopping around the web of late chronicles the clever and delicious move by students at Hilliard Davidson High School in Columbus, Ohio, who managed to get 800 fans of their school's football opponent, Darby High, to hold up cards that all together spelled out a humongous "We Suck." For their creative troubles, the Davidson conspirators got three days of suspension and were banned from extracurricular activities for the semester.
Of course, the kid should and will get a place in the local folklore hall of fame, and while it's probably too much to ask that his school grant him official recognition for his splendid achievement, the principal should have known well enough to just shut up about the incident.
But the zero tolerance insanity that also infects Washington area high schools (on the jump, see my piece on how Fairfax County crushed some kids who pulled off a fine piece of work a few years ago) shows no sign of abating.
In one state after another, it has proven easier to just throw out kids who pull off pranks rather than allow principals and teachers to discern between the witty and the just plain mean. The automatic punishment regimen creates all too much opportunity for hypocrisy, as we saw in the infamous case of Alexandria schools superintendent Rebecca Perry.
Luckily, there is a backlash against the zero tolerance movement, focusing on the need to inject a bit more discretion into the disciplinary codes of schools and other institutions.
That didn't help the kids in Columbus or the Yale students who pulled off an almost identical prank in 2004. And there are still plenty of folks who appreciate a great prank.
Do you know of any good ones pulled off around here recently?
The Dec. 15, 2001 column
One year, it was lab rats released in the cafeteria. Another year, the seniors at Robinson High in Fairfax County tarred shut the school's main door. This fall, a bunch of seniors decided to steal a page from another year's Homecoming Week senior prank: They would spread baby oil on the terrazzo floor of Robinson's main hall.
Friday morning, Oct. 26, just before the annual pep rally. A handful of seniors arrive with baby oil. Down in the locker bay, Phil Masterson is handed a bottle. He hesitates. "I stopped and thought, 'My senior year isn't worth messing up for this.' " So, he says, he puts the bottle down. The others charge ahead with the prank.
Five seniors -- including Phil -- don't go to Robinson anymore. A Fairfax County schools hearing officer last month tossed them out permanently; one was sent to the county's alternative school the rest were dispersed to other high schools. And get this: The system is pressing criminal charges against the students, several of whom are due in court Tuesday. Zero tolerance, baby.
"The first response to a prank should be laughter," Robinson Principal Ann Monday told me. So far, so good. Alas, she continued: "But this goes well beyond the category of prank. We try to be reasonable in our responses, but it comes down to how safe are our kids and how disruptive was this."
Principal Monday -- and the hearing officer who put the Baby Oil Five out of her school -- concluded that this prank "severely disrupted" the school by forcing cancellation of the pep rally and requiring 40 man-hours and several hundred dollars worth of cleanup.
From a summary by hearing officer Richard Doyle: "As seniors and staff members encountered the slick floors, some began to lose footing." Monday adds, "We were lucky we didn't have any injuries."
Many parents at Robinson see it differently: "They screwed up, they pulled a prank," says the mother of one condemned boy. "Nobody got hurt. It wasn't drugs, it wasn't a gun, it wasn't even alcohol. I could see a few days' suspension, but this is wild overkill."
Phil Masterson's mother, Shari Wolfe, says her son's banishment from Robinson -- he may not set foot on school grounds -- has left the boy almost without hope. "The other day, he told me, 'Mom, what's the point? What college will take me now?' "
Amazingly, Phil was "excluded," the official term for the ban, even though no witness saw him participate in the oiling. No matter: The hearing officer "was not convinced that Philip has been totally forthcoming." No proof necessary, apparently.
Phil, 17, describes interrogations in which school security officers repeatedly told him, "Time to 'fess up, your buddies are telling on you." He was told that 10 witnesses saw him pour oil, but in the end, there was no such testimony. Phil remains stunned that school officials would lie.
"This was just the typical senior prank that happens in almost every high school," Phil says. "It was a foolish prank, never intended to hurt anyone. I know people who've gotten in less trouble for drug possession."
Zero tolerance, zero sense. Last year, a Loudoun middle-schooler was suspended for four months because he took a knife from a classmate who had previously attempted suicide. But the knife was in our hero's locker when authorities found out about it, so off with his head. Then we had the Virginia senior who got suspended for taking a swig of Listerine, which contains forbidden alcohol. Nationwide, school suspensions have almost doubled since the 1970s, though crime has dropped like a stone.
When I was in high school, a trio of us squirreled away dissection animals that had belonged to a boy who'd left the school. Come spring, we opened the window of the third-floor bio lab, which overlooked the baseball field, and, once each inning, dropped an animal near the feet of the visiting right fielder. Worm in the second, starfish in the third, frog in the fourth.
After the game, the headmaster ushered us into his office. Mr. Clark pursed his lips, jutted his jaw. Uh-oh, here it comes. He told us the right fielder had come off the field muttering that "It was raining animals out there."
"You know what I'm supposed to say," Mr. Clark said. "But it must have been beautiful. Well done, men. Now get out of here." Discretion, proportion, humor -- so simple, so obvious, so rare.
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