John Marshall High School

John Marshall High School Rochester, Minn Thursday October 8, 2015.

A senior prank at John Marshall High School the night before the first day of school last month resulted in a police response and about 30 students being suspended, according to a student who took part in the incident and spoke to the Post-Bulletin on condition of anonymity.

The Rochester school district acknowledged Wednesday that an incident occurred on Sept. 8 but has provided few details and declined comment on questions about discipline, citing student privacy laws. "The district's administration investigated the incident and took action it deemed appropriate under the circumstances," Heather Nessler, the district's communications director, said via email.

Rochester police described the incident as vandalism, though no charges have been filed.

Rochester School Board member Gary Smith said Thursday the board was informed by email that police were dispatched to JM but was not provided with other details. A JM teacher also told the P-B that staff was alerted to an incident that occurred overnight on Sept. 8, without further information.

The incident, investigation and discipline have not been discussed at a public meeting.

"The district did not issue a public statement at a board meeting for a variety of reasons," Nessler said in her emails to the Post-Bulletin. "One reason is the fact the district's administration is generally responsible for handling issues related to student behavior. Another reason is that specific details related to individual student behavior is protected from disclosure by state and federal law.

"One more reason is the fact that the incident had no effect on the start of the school year due to excellent work by the district's maintenance and facilities staff," she said.

Minnesota Newspaper Association attorney Mark Anfinson says school districts facing incidents of this kind are "incredibly resistant to sharing anything that doesn't make them look good." The combination of strong employee and student privacy laws makes it a "bad environment" for news organizations trying to gather facts, he said.

However, Red Wing's Superintendent Karsten Anderson disclosed a similar vandalism incident almost immediately in 2013 that eventually resulted in the suspension of 12 students.

According to the police report, neighbors alerted police to "numerous kids on the school grounds throwing toilet paper into the trees" at about 1 a.m., hours before the first day of school. Multiple officers were dispatched to the scene with emergency lights flashing, which prompted the students to flee.

Authorities found toilet paper in virtually every tree on campus and paint was "splattered on the east doors," according to the police report.

Assistant Superintendent Brenda Lewis was alerted to the situation about 2 a.m., and Scott Sherden, a former police officer who is now the district's coordinator of district security, emergency response and performance management, arrived on site at 2:30 a.m., according to the police report.

Four students caught by officers told them it was a senior prank and most of the class was involved; their names were redacted from the police report. The JM student who spoke with the P-B said about 70 students took part but less than half were punished.

"JM kids vandalize their own school?" a student from another Rochester high school posted Sept. 9 on Twitter. "Sweet tradition you guys have over there."

Nessler said the incident resulted in "some damage to district property." Maintenance staff and a cleaning service were called in during the middle of the night to deal with the vandalism. They were able to "fix and clean up the damaged property in time for the start of the school year on Sept. 8," she said.

Nessler did not provide a cost estimate for damage and repairs.

The district's punishment included a three-day suspension and 15 hours of community service, though the community service later was rescinded, according to the student.

The JM student and another source also raised questions about whether athletes received preferential treatment during the investigation.

JM Athletic Director Angie Meister declined comment this week, saying the situations were "taken care of by the administration." The former Rockets standout athlete announced her resignation Monday, effective Wednesday, citing a new job opportunity and a desire to spend more time with her family. Meister was hired almost exactly a year ago after the previous JM athletic director resigned last fall.

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