YOU READ IT HERE FIRST: Bergen County Prosecutor John L. Molinelli today downgraded criminal charges against two dozen adults and complaints against 39 juveniles charged in an overnight prank gone wild at Teaneck High School.
He also criticized those involved for creating the potential for harm — by flooding darkened hallways with dozens of people — and praised local police for their restraint in dealing with the crowd.
“Regardless of the positions that some parents have taken in Teaneck concerning this incident, the entire community should, at the very least, recognize such restraint and admirable behavior by all of the police officers involved,” the prosecutor said.
“That anyone would have access to a potential Homeland Security target is troubling,” Molinelli said. “We need not recount the tragedies that have occurred in schools throughout the world and in this country.
“Nationally, as well as in this state, tremendous efforts have been made to make our schools a safer place for our children,” he said. “I am most concerned that what was intended as a prank was venued at a building that requires utmost security and our commitment to safety.
Molinelli also revealed, for the first time, how the students got in: They had keys.
“It appears that there are at least 1 to 3 keys that were provided to students on the evening in question to allow them access to the premises,” he said. “Both Teaneck police and school administration continue to investigate how the students came to be in possession of these keys.
“Our office has also assisted and will continue to work with both school administration and police to ascertain how it is that students were able to open up a high school building at one o’clock in the morning with a master key.”
School officials have begun replacing all locks and cylinders at the school.
“This is an important move and, while expensive, is necessary to retain security at the high school,” the prosecutor. “I would encourage the Teaneck school administration in the future to consult with local police when a master key is lost or other incident occurs which might require security assessment procedures.”
By dropping the burglary and criminal mischief charges against the adults to disorderly persons offenses, Molinelli is keeping the case from a grand jury and providing all of those arrested in the May 1 incident the opportunity to clear the arrests from their records through pre-trial intervenion.
Whether or not any would be approved will be up to a Municipal Court judge, he said.
Molinelli said his office and local police have greater control of the juvenile cases, under what is known as a “station house adjustment.”
State law allows authorities to offer those under 18 community service or other form of restitution to keep first-time offenders from having juvenile delinquency convictions on their records.
All but one of the 39 appear eligible, he said.
As the law states:
“The intent of the Station House adjustment program is to provide for immediate consequences, such as community service or restitution and a prompt and convenient resolution for the victim, while at the same time benefitting the juvenile by avoiding the stigma of a formal juvenile delinquency record. In many instances, this early intervention will deter the youth from continuing their negative behavior and divert the youth from progressing further into the juvenile justice system.”
Molinelli said he expected the necessary cooperation from Teaneck school officials with regard to the “station house” approach.
“Our office has conferred with both the School Executive Administration and the Teaneck Police, and it is agreed, in consultation with and upon the recommendation of this office, that the Station House Adjustment process be utilized,” he said this afternoon.
“In coming to this conclusion, we considered the impact that criminal convictions may have on individuals at such an early stage in their life,” he said.
“This is also taking into consideration the nature of the offenses, the damage done to property, as well as the original intent that the students had when initiating this ill- advised conduct.
“It is apparent that a group of seniors determined to play a prank in the waning days of their careers at Teaneck High School by placing balloons and smearing Vaseline on door handles within the school,” Molinelli added.
“Unfortunately for them, word apparently spread within the young Teaneck community and many more students arrived in the early morning hours of May 1, 2014 than was anticipated.
“Further,” he said, “when a large number of students convene in the middle of the night with no supervision most adults would expect that things would clearly get out of hand and go well beyond what might have been originally intended.
“Experience and growing older will certainly teach the rather smaller number of students that just wanted to play a prank on how things can get out of hand.
“[H]owever well-intentioned those that planned the original prank may have been,” the prosecutor said, “their facially neutral intentions were wrong and violate many laws established by our state Legislature.”
An estimated 100 people were in the school when three alarms were activiated — 1:06, 1:44 and 2:11 a.m. — the last alarm being a 2nd floor alarm from the high school “which gave police a clear indication that individuals were inside the building,” Molinelli said.
“Online video access was achieved by the local police, but a review of subsequent video samplings indicates that the school hallways were dark and student identities often difficult to confirm,” Molinelli said. “Thus, as police were dispatched to the scene, all that they knew at the time was that there were a large number of people inside the school premises.
“When local police determined that the number of intruders was large, appropriate procedures were implemented to call in outside agency assistance under the Bergen County Law Enforcement Mutual Aid plan. This was not an overreaction but standard procedure for police under Incident Command policies.”
Molinelli also addressed the growing conflict in town over the incident.
“Setting aside, for a moment, many of the statements made by various sources within Teaneck in the days and weeks that have followed this incident, the greatest concern that this office has with regard to what occurred was the presence of a large number of individuals in a dark building being pursued by armed police officers,” the prosecutor said.
“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.
“I am grateful that proper restraint was exercised by police from Teaneck and other jurisdictions so that a tragic and regrettable result did not occur. If it had, dialogue within the fine community of Teaneck and within this County, if not State, would be substantially different than it is today.
“A review of records made available indicates that students accessed the high school premises by the utilization of keys, particularly along the entrance at Elizabeth Avenue,” Molinelli continued. “These keys would ultimately be utilized to open Interior classroom doors that were locked.
“Many of these classrooms were upended with chairs and furniture being pulled from them and strewn about the area, including hallways,” he said. “This included the cafeteria area and significant other areas within the building.
“It appears that one or a few furniture items were damaged in the process of being turned over or pulled out into the hallway, but for the most part it appears that the furniture was simply upended in place.
“It further appears that some students used marijuana or other controlled substances during the incident in question, removed foods and other items from the cafeteria, strewing them in hallways adjacent thereto and utilized large markers to scroll graffiti throughout the school premises,” the prosecutor said. “It cannot be determined which students were responsible for this.
“It further appears that one or more students did urinate in an area of the building and that garbage cans throughout the building were also overturned,” he said. “While not major, this office has no intention of classifying the level of damage done, except insofar as relevant to our determination that all of the students over the age of 18 who have been charged should have their case downgraded as a disorderly persons Criminal Mischief/Criminal Trespass case.
Molinelli said he met with Teaneck Acting Police Chief Carney, THS Principal Dennis Heck and Schools Supt. Barbara Pinsak.
“The Teaneck school administration has been most cooperative with law enforcement throughout this entire incident, has taken swift and responsive action regarding the students and I am satisfied that the administration was not aware of the planned incident in question.
“It would be my recommendation that school administrators continue to cooperate with Teaneck police concerning the Station House adjustments to be administered on behalf of the juvenile students and in a manner which will fit the nature of what has been done and reflect a fair, just and appropriate disposition.
“This building, while public, is not open for anyone to trespass upon,” Molinelli emphasized. “There is no prank, joke or other conduct that justifies anyone, however young or old they may be, from entering such a building and at any time and it is hoped that conversations about just how much damage was done, by whom and how much it cost to clean cease in recognition of this far greater concern.
“I am grateful that no one was seriously injured and that no tragedy occurred, but recognize that one negative act should not define any student,” he added. “I am hopeful that the result today will begin to allow a more productive dialogue by elected officials, the public and students.
“I wish the best of luck to all of them.”
INSET: Bergen County Prosecutor John L. Molinelli (PHOTO: Mary K. Miraglia, CLIFFVIEW PILOT Courthouse Reporter)