Punishment should fit crime

Did y’all hear? A bunch of seniors at Oneida High School trashed up the school — spray-painting the walls, busting glass out of the windows and destroying furniture.

Okay, they didn’t really. But if you were reading social media Thursday, that was the story making the rounds. More than one person stated as fact that the school was heavily vandalized as a senior prank.

That’s what usually happens: social media gets hold of something, and the proverbial mountain-from-a-molehill results. It’s the 21st century version of a game we used to play when I was in first grade. The students would sit in a circle, and the teacher would whisper something in the ear of the first student. That student would then repeat it to his neighbor, and that person to his neighbor, until it had gone all the way around the room. The last student in the circle would say it out loud, and it would be something completely different from what was originally said.

For the record, a group of 30 seniors at Oneida did trash the school as a senior prank — making a real mess of the place with silly string, confetti, glitter, packing peanuts and an assortment of other items. They were busted because they didn’t think — or, more likely, just didn’t care — about the school’s surveillance cameras.

The story caught traction Thursday when WBIR TV in Knoxville reported that the students have been sentenced to 16 hours of community service.

As the story was shared throughout East Tennessee, there was no shortage of folks feigning outrage that the students got off with community service.

There were also a few folks demanding to know why our newspaper didn’t do a story. One caller chastised us for not following WBIR’s lead. “Y’all are afraid of those rich Oneida parents,” he alleged.

My response? There aren’t many people I’m afraid of. In fact, when someone attempts to leverage their influence to cause us to not do a story on some particular subject, that makes me all the more likely to pursue a story, just to prove that the news can’t be influenced.

But if something isn’t news, it isn’t news. And senior pranks aren’t news. The students at Oneida High are hardly the first students to pull a prank like that, and they certainly won’t be the last. Did they go a little too far with their prank? Certainly. But there’s a pretty substantial gap between petty “vandalism” (I’m using quotes because I’m using the term very loosely here) that can be cleaned up with a broom and dustpan and vandalism that leaves lasting damage.

The latter? That’s newsworthy…well, you would think it’s newsworthy, anyway. But students at a high school not far from Oneida pulled a prank of their own recently — one that involved actual physical damage to school property — and it wasn’t reported on. Last year, another high school, even closer, saw the same thing take place. That one, too, escaped the watchful eye of news reporters.

Fact is, I learned about the incident almost as soon as teachers and administrators began arriving at school and discovered the mess Wednesday morning. I didn’t think it was newsworthy then, and don’t now. I just think it is what it was: a silly prank that went a little too far but isn’t going to shake the earth off its axis of rotation.

Then there are those who feel the students at Oneida got off too light. For what it’s worth, I’m told there were school administrators who were advocating for criminal charges to be pressed, and others who advocated for the lesser punishment. The latter won out.

My question is what sort of punishment would you think appropriate for a prank such as this? I would say make the students clean up their own mess, then let them do a little community service.

Which is exactly what happened. (And, for the record, the mess was cleaned up within a couple of hours.)

Seems appropriate to me.

You can argue “kids will be kids” — and they will, by the way — but pranks are only fun until someone gets caught. If you’re caught, there must be consequences.

But the punishment should fit the crime.

Reading some of the comments on social media, I saw several who said the kids should’ve been charged. Here’s the problem with that: these students aren’t juveniles. They’re 18 and 19 years old. Which means they would have faced those charges as adults…felony charges. If convicted, they would’ve never been able to vote, never been able to own a gun, not to mention the difficulty they would’ve had getting into college.

All that for spraying silly spring and dumping packing peanuts. Does that seem appropriate?

For some it does. In fact, some think even that wouldn’t have been enough. One woman, commenting on social media, said the students should spent at least a year in jail.

Seriously. A year in jail for dumping confetti in a school hallway. Because nothing teaches consequences for your actions like turning an honors student into a hardened convict as they’re starting their adult life.

“Today it’s vandalism at school. Tomorrow they might be robbing a gas station,” the same woman said.

Here’s the thing: I know most of those students. Was it a dumb thing to do? Of course. Would they be in even more trouble once they got home if they were my kids? You better believe it. But are they going to be knocking off a gas station next week? A lot of these hardened criminals are 4.0 GPA students who will graduate with honors…students who have never been in trouble in their lives.

Mountains out of molehills.

Closer to home, there have been a few who have argued that they got off light because of who their parents are. Or because they are “city kids,” as one woman said (read: if they were Scott High students, they would’ve been charged).

But that isn’t true, either. It’s just that there are some issues that, in the grand scheme of things, really aren’t that important, no matter how much social media blows them out of proportion. Students selling snacks at school, students dumping packing peanuts as a prank…those things aren’t important. Those things aren’t newsworthy. And those things hardly make our high school students here in Scott County a bunch of thugs or young criminals in the making.

I’m not so far removed from my own teenage years that I don’t remember doing stuff that I thought was pretty funny at the time that was really kinda dumb. And I’ll bet most of you could say the same. I remember once, as a high school student, going out and rounding up campaign signs during an election year, then taking them somewhere else and rearranging them. To my teenage self, it was good, harmless fun. In the eyes of the law, it was theft. If I had been caught, there would have been consequences to pay. But hopefully the punishment would have fit the crime.

So for those who feel that community service isn’t punishment enough, what would have been appropriate? Not allowing them to participate in graduation ceremonies? Making their parents pay a fine? Or, as some have advocated, a permanent stain on their record or even jail time?

I don’t know if cleaning up the mess was as much fun as making it was for the students, but considering that they got caught and it was them — not janitors or teachers — who had to pick it all up, it seems like the joke’s on the students.

But, then again, they made the news, and we’re all talking about it. This year’s senior class made a name for themselves that won’t soon be forgotten. So maybe the joke’s on all of us.

Either way, when these kids are off to college in a few months to begin their paths towards becoming doctors, nurse practitioners, dental hygienists and teachers–and doing so with honors–I’m pretty sure this incident isn’t going to matter in the grand scheme of things.

Well, except for the ones who go rob a convenience store because we didn’t lock them up and throw away the key for doing something stupid like dumping trash in a hallway.

16 Reviews

    Not much different than “toilet tipping”. Different time-different action. Both wrong–but it doesn’t make a criminal out of them.

    Well in my opinion those who blew things up on facebook should suffer the consequences of their actions too. Take their computers away and they aren’t allowed to even view the internet for one year. After all one year jail time was what you said one lady said should have been the punishment. – if silly string and packing peanut scattering calls for a year in jail we live in a sad society. Anyone who thinks so should get off their computer and get a life for a change.

    I think it was a funny prank. They just got a little too creative with their decorations. I’m sure the people throwing stones would sing a different tune if it was their own child. I know most of the kids involved and they are really good kids. They definitely made history with their prank.

    I heard they had trashed it yesterday. Well they did, but it wasn’t destruction. I know some people would say that if their parents would have raised them better then they wouldn’t do such stuff. Well, you can’t be with them 24 seven so you can’t keep them from doing things when they choose to whether they decide to just be a part of something or peer pressure. Bad decisions are made and this one didn’t hurt anyone and doesn’t make them criminals that should go to jail. That’s just ridiculous. Should they not be allowed to walk across the stage for graduation? Ridiculous. Now the punishment they got I believe was too light. I think that they should get the same fine and clean up that a person who is caught littering, which we know is a huge problem in our county. So besides cleaning their mess at the school, make them pick up garbage for a week on the highway and the roads where people throw out their trash and make it an 8 hour day. To me, they otherwise they just think they got away with something and cleaning their mess is worth having the fun. If they had a trip to the beach or something planned for the summer would I as a parent let them still go with a group? I reluctantly would, but they would be an adult and really can’t tell them what to do and just pray they stay out of trouble. Back to punishment. Their parents should go along with road cleanup themselves if they are not having to be ordered to do it. It won’t hurt them and maybe have them think twice before littering. If they have to pay the fine, then have their kids get a job to pay them back or clean or whatever at the school or at their own home until they have worked it off. I don’t know if they got off light because of their parents, but I don’t even know who they are. Should be the same for any student. I think the schools should have this added to what a student can and can’t get away with to begin with so students are aware of what will happen when they are broken. If as a parent you have not had any problems with your kids, then you’re very lucky, but after high school you may just begin to think what happened if things start to go south. Hopefully they won’t.

    Well I never done nothing foolish in my youth!
    That is so ridiculous to say that what they done is a crime. I was being sarcastic about my youth. Young people make mistakes in judgment actually we adults do to especially
    Comparing mischief to criminal activity.
    I broke quite a few rules.in school &I m 55 yrs
    Old and have never been to jail over criminal
    activity of any kind. Actually got paddle a few times,witch didn’t damage my mental health.
    I just wonder were wisdom is nowadays apparently it has been misplaced or lost.
    Common since says make them clean the
    mess up,community service is good also.
    some people are quick to try to ruin people’s lives when some of these youth will become political leaders and some even defenders & encourages of this great country which we share… note: I don’t have know family member involve in these acts of the youth .

    OK, they are teenagers and probably just did not think beyond having a little fun; but, did any of us think as teenagers beyond just having fun? At least they cleaned up their mess and actually there was no harm, no foul. It won’t hurt them to do a little community service for their deeds. They will remember this and laugh about it in the future. Who knows, there may even be a future President of the U.S. out of this class. Remember, they are “kids” and we should not judge them too harshly, nor should we believe everything we hear.

    These kids love there school and did no harm. They did get caught and the punishment fits their actions. Most people have nothing better to do than judge other people’s parenting and school administration.

    Silly string and peanuts. Seriously. Wow. Seems to me they was raised right because instead of doing what they did they would have vandalized it, but by being raised right they knew that would be wrong. I bet these kids and everyone else’s made bigger messes than this at home.

    Oh my gosh!! A year in jail? That’s crazy. If they had broken something they would have got the death penalty by that person’s standards ?that’s crazy. That person obviously never had kids.

    I enjoyed reading this. Very well written and a nice way to address the ignorance. Let’s call it what it is….ignorance. Just small town people running off at the mouth via the web. People who obviously don’t know any better.

    Love this story! You’re right on the money! Congrats to all graduating Seniors in the county! Now go on and make us proud!

    The behavior of these students is just plain malicious and disrespectful. So there may not have been serious damage, nonetheless, the attitude of the students that prompted such an act seems to have been forgotten in this discussion. What I am hearing is that it’s OK to be malicious and disrespectful of public property. Just a little highschool fun…really……. I certainly wouldn’t lock them up or make them felons, for sure, but I don’t applaud them for being stupid.

    100 % with you Ben Garrett- I think some forgot about being a teenager and maybe those throwing the biggest fit- need to think back to their teenage years!!! I will say NO More!

    Really!!!!! My grandson was one grad participant. It was a prank nothing more nothing less. Worry about something that has value like dooms day. Those kid might save us.

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