By Kristin Fox
A week ago, on the evening of May 16th, students at Smoky Mountain High School (SMHS) participated in what started out as the traditional senior prank. However, this year’s senior prank according to Jackson County Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Dana Ayers went from a “harmless, have-a-little-fun prank” carried out according to the plan to illegal acts that are now resulting in criminal charges against students.
Ayers addressed the school prank incident at last night’s monthly school board meeting stating that each student will be held accountable with legal charges filed but they will be permitted to participate in graduation ceremonies.
Exclusion from graduation ceremonies is a possible disciplinary measure or response that can be given to a student in violation of the school system’s code of student conduct. Ayers told the school board that she does not believe that students should be excluded from graduation.
Ayers told the school board that “Each student involved will be held accountable with the legal charges filed but will be permitted to participate in graduation ceremonies.”
“The SMHS senior prank began as a harmless have a little fun prank and went according to plan,” said Ayers. “It is the actions after leaving the building that are irresponsible and illegal. Students were directed to leave campus, but they returned, reentered the school without permission and trespassed on campus.”
“Much time that should have been spent focusing on instruction, school safety and preparing for testing and graduation ceremonies was spent by the SMHS administrative team and the SRO on investigations,” she added. “I am disappointed by these actions and disheartened by the community uproar that has surrounded this incident.”
“The student’s actions have resulted in law enforcement pressing charges with my support,” said Ayers. “It is my hope that a lesson has been learned from this incident.”
Around 20 students have been investigated in the school prank incident. Charges include several misdemeanors including breaking and entering, vandalism and trespassing.
During public comment at the school board meeting, Sylva Attorney Jay Pavey, who has been retained by several of the students who are being charged, addressed the board on behalf of some of his clients and some of the parents about the school prank.
“I would say to you that some of what you have heard is not the entire truth,” said Pavey. “I think there is some question about what has taken place; yes, there was a school prank, the children did go out there and did conduct part of their prank. There is a question about whether they left the school in its entirety or not.”
“The fact of the matter is that some of the students did stick around; their grievous act was that they toilet papered some of the hallways and took some chairs out of a classroom and ziptied them. That was the extent of it. Nothing was damaged, nothing was broken, no one was hurt. As a result of this, the school administration feels the necessity to file criminal charges against these individuals.”
“We are going to saddle these students with criminal charges because they took a prank a little too far,” said Pavey. “I do criminal defense and represent some really bad people, and this is the least of anyone’s concern.”
Pavey told the board that he talked to the District Attorney’s office about this and said they were stunned and in total disbelief that the school administration is pressing charges for the prank. He said that the DA’s office suggested the students complete community service as punishment; however, he stated that when he addressed this with the school administration they said no. He stated that the school leadership said they are not going to do that, because they want to teach these children a lesson.
“When we go to graduation for these children that this school and community has stuck around for the last 13 years, have molded, taught and encouraged them, all this work has been done to get them to this point so we can get them out into the world, not only are we going to give them a diploma in the one hand but we are going to give them criminal charges in the other,” said Pavey. “All because the administration refuses to look at the alternative to make them go out and sweat on a Saturday morning doing a community service project. Having criminal charges is just not the route we need to go with these children.”
A letter signed by Ayers and SMHS Principal Evelyn Graning has been given to SMHS students and families addressing the incident and stating that the students will be allowed to walk at graduation but will be held accountable for their actions during the senior prank.