School Pranksters Offered Diversion

At least one parent says they will fight the charges

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None of the Payson High School students involved in the senior prank will face criminal charges, providing they accept a plea bargain and complete a diversion program.

Some students are interested in going to court to fight the charges, which could result in two years prison time and a maximum fine of $150,000 if convicted.

The 20 students involved glued pennies to the sidewalk and doors of the school, deflated tires on buses, painted "Class of 08" on the track, sprayed silly string and broke electrical boxes on the football field May 11.

Gila County Attorney Daisy Flores said, "all of the suspects involved in the incident wherein there was sufficient evidence to pursue criminal charges will be offered diversion of some sort."

Initially, many of the students faced multiple criminal and felony charges. Flores said of the 20 students, only one will not face charges or have to attend the diversion program.

The other 19 students received a letter from the attorney's office offering two options.

The first is to complete an adult diversion program through Gila County.

Details of the program include: pay the school compensation of $129.33-$250, enter a one-year adult diversion contract, report to a diversion officer, perform 50 hours of community service, pay the diversion fee of $600-$1,000, be a full-time student or employed, give a taped admission to the crime and submit to counseling as ordered.

The second option is to face charges of aggravated criminal damage, a class five felony, or another charge.

Flores said the diversion offered to each suspect depends on his or her age and participation in the incident. Suspects close in age to 18, will have to attend adult diversion.

"If they accept the diversion offer, these young people will be able to pay restitution, learn a lesson and still be productive and successful adults," Flores said.

As of Wednesday, only three of the 20 students had received a letter, said Lynn Sommars, one of the parents.

Another parent, Tom Loeffler, said he heard a dozen students had received it.

Mike and Lynn Sommars, whose 17-year-old teen glued pennies to the sidewalk, said they would choose the diversion program.

Aaron Loeffler, 18, faces two possible felonies -- fifth-degree aggravated criminal damage and burglary in the fifth degree. He plans to go to court to fight the ruling.

He said he knew of two students who were also interested in going to court, and one student who was going to do the diversion program.

Aaron said he couldn't take the diversion program because he would have to give a taped admission to committing the two felonies, which he feels he did not commit.

"I can't legally plead guilty to those crimes," Aaron said.

Shortly after the incident in May, the Sommars teen, along with other students, went to the school, admitted their participation, apologized and offered to make up for the damage.

"We went down to the principal and offered to pay for the repairs or do community service," Lynn said. "The principal told us they don't want anything."

Lynn said she is mad the courts had to be involved and taxpayers' money wasted when it could have been settled out of court.

"The fact that they turned us down for everything we offered and then the court orders it," is upsetting, she said.

After sending an apology letter to the school, the Sommars thought the matter was over.

Aaron said everyone thought the charges were going to be dropped because they did not hear anything for two months.

Receiving the letter in the mail "was a big shock at first," he said.

"I can't believe they would go through with felony charges," Aaron said. "I can understand some kids would get felonies, but all I did was put silly string on one bus window and auditorium windows."

Police told the students at the time of the incident that if they cooperated, authorities would go easy on them, Mike said.

"We were told if they confessed, everything would be fine," he said.

Payson Police Chief Don Engler said past pranks were not at the level of this one.

The amount of damage caused, $6,800, is more than anyone guessed, he said. The students may not have intended to cause permanent damage, but they did.

Aaron said no one intended to have it turn out like this. "No one knew tires were going to be deflated."

Many of the parents feel the punishment does not fit the crime committed.

"This is malicious prosecution on the part of the attorney," Mike said.

"The punishment should fit the crime," Tom said. "He could be charged with a felony for silly string."

Engler said a diversion program is lenient for the damage caused.

"The bottom line is that each individual will need to take responsibility for their actions through entering the diversion program and, in turn, if they successfully complete diversion they will receive the benefit of having no formal criminal charges or conviction on their permanent record," Flores said.

When asked why it took two months to determine what to charge the students with, Flores said she wanted to consider all suspects' cases at the same time and have a consistent approach.

"We do not make a decision until we have all information available to make a fair and justified decision," Flores said.

Before students went off to college, action could have been taken, Lynn said. Many of the students went or are leaving for college.

She said she asked her child what they were thinking on that night.

"They said they wanted never to be forgotten, ‘we loved our school.'"

In 2007, students spray-painted on the ground in front of the school, Lynn said. "They were thinking it is almost a tradition."

Payson High School Principal Roy Sandoval said seniors were warned about pranks this year.

"The impetus behind a senior prank seems to be to make an indelible mark on your class in history," Sandoval said.

Seniors are encouraged this year to create a senior project that would be a service to the community and honor their senior class, he said.

"Our desire is to create traditions that students, parents, staff and the community can proudly recognize," Sandoval said.

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