The 63 high school students arrested for allegedly vandalizing their New Jersey school in a class prank earlier this month will likely avoid criminal convictions after the county prosecutor announced his office was downgrading charges against them.
Bergen County Prosecutor John L. Molinelli says the 24 Teaneck High School students who were charged as adults with burglary and criminal mischief instead now face disorderly persons offenses.
The students are expected to apply for alternative pre-trial programs that will help them avoid any conviction on those charges.
The 39 other students who were arrested were under 18 and will be eligible to perform community service or other restitution to avoid any official record of juvenile delinquency.
"In coming to this conclusion, we considered the impact that criminal convictions may have on individuals at such an early stage in their life," Molinelli said in a statement, adding that he recognized "that one negative act should not define any student."
Molinelli said an investigation showed that a group of seniors planned to carry out a small prank by putting balloons in the school and smearing Vaseline on door handles. Word of the plan spread quickly and grew out of control, with nearly 100 students showing up at the school in the overnight hours on May 1.
Chairs in classrooms were upended, furniture was pulled out in the hallways, food was pulled from the cafeteria and strewn about the hallways and graffiti was scrawled throughout the premises, according to the prosecutor.
It appears some students also used marijuana, and at least one student urinated in the school, Molinelli said.
Investigators couldn't determine which students were responsible for each of the damages.
Molinelli said his biggest concern presented by the prank was the sheer number of people in a dark building being pursued by armed police officers.
"While some of the students may have believed this to be a non-event, when you combine a large number of 17- and 18-year-old young adults in a dark building with police and service weapons present, the likelihood of serious bodily injury or death to a student or police officer increases dramatically," he said.
Molinelli added that prosecutors, Teaneck police and the school administration were troubled that the students were able to get between one and three master keys that gave them access to the school. The school is replacing all the locks in the building.
On Tuesday night, town council members in Teaneck passed a resolution urging authorities not to prosecute the 63 students arrested earlier this month in a school prank.
"They are really good kids, and it was just a prank gone wrong," one parent told the council.
Students also held a rally earlier this month to protest the charges, saying prosecutors were putting their futures at risk for a "harmless prank" that got out of hand.