Students or Scoundrels: College Pranks Gone Bad

Students or Scoundrels: College Pranks Gone Bad

by Lisa C. Johnson, Esq., September 2009
For many, college pranks are a rite of passage. They can be clever and funny, but they're not always legal. Good students with impressive credentials can find themselves on the Dean's List one day and the court roster the next. Knowing where to draw the line is essential.

What defines a prank? The University Daily Kansan ran an article citing a good prank as: involving humor, creativity, and surprise. It continues, "prank etiquette dictates that nobody sustains physical harm or injury and that there is no intent to hurt anyone."

So when does a prank cross the line from fun to felony? Here are a few examples of pranks that have gone too far.

The Popcorn Prank

After an incident in May 2009, Central Connecticut State University students now have a good idea of what a prank gone awry looks like. According to, student pranksters Matthew Dortch and Patrick Robinson admitted to deliberately burning two bags of popcorn in a dorm microwave while Christopher Scifo, a former student, used fishing line to tie the doors shut in a number of rooms so the students could not get out. The dorm soon filled with smoke causing a fire alarm to go off just after 3AM.

According to reports, students remained calm as the fire alarm sounded even though many couldn't escape their dorm rooms. The three pranksters were arrested and charged with reckless endangerment and criminal mischief. The two students were also suspended from school pending an investigation. They said it was a prank, meant to get a few laughs. The law may say otherwise.

The Sheep Rustler

Following what was meant to be a funny prank, Angelo State University students Thaddeus Geagley and Randall Key and former student Scotty Marsh were charged with felony theft, punishable by as many as two years in jail and a fine of up to $10,000.

On July 28, 2009, reported charges against the three for stealing a five-foot fiberglass sheep, also known as the "Freedom for Me and Ewe sheep," from behind the First Community Federal Credit Union. The sheep was owned by Goodfellow Air Force Base making it federal property and the theft of it a federal crime.

Hazing: Prank or Crime?

These above-mentioned cases show that there is often a thin line between a crime and a prank. When college students are involved, knowing the distinction between a harmless prank and an illegal hazing are also important.

According to, hazing is "[a]ny action taken or situation created intentionally: that causes embarrassment, harassment or ridicule, risks emotional and/or physical harm to members of an organization or team, whether new or not, regardless of the person's willingness to participate."

Many pranks or rituals that students think of as harmless may actually constitute hazing. Since most states have laws against hazing, legal difficulties could arise.

With fall approaching and college dorms filling up with students, there is no doubt that pranks will abound. Remember though, there's a thin line between a prank and a crime.


"Pranks gone wild" by Jason Shaad. The University Daily Kansan, April 27, 2006.

"Popcorn Prank Burns CCSU Athletes" by Jeff Stoecker and Leanne Gendreau., May 13, 2009.

"Alleged sheep rustler says he is sorry" by Jennifer Rios. San Angelo Standard-Times, July 28, 2009.

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