7 College or University April Fool’s Pranks & Whether Or Not They Posed A Campus Safety Risk

Picture of Mary Kate McGrath By Mary Kate McGrath

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april fools day prank April Fool’s Day may not be a campus safety manager’s favorite holiday. On April 1, the unofficial celebration can bring pranks and hoaxes to campus, and college and university students have a long history of commemorating this day. There are plenty of good fun pranks and some, given the level of professionalism or planning put into them, are even inventive. However, it is a slippery slope between a harmless joke and a campus safety issue, and it’s important students understand the difference.

Prepare for campus prank season by making sure students, teachers, and staff are aware of the code of conduct. Elaborate pranks may seem all in good fun, but it’s important that no safety regulations are violated, even if it is in the name of getting a laugh. The good news is that practical jokes require a bit of planning, and even the most foolhardy prankster can ensure that the community isn’t put in danger.

Over the years, plenty of students have put their hard-earned knowledge to the test — in the name of electing animals to local legislature, stopping local traffic, or putting first response vehicles on top of buildings. Whether it’s turning a building into a big Tetris game or planting plastic flamingos on the campus lawn, pranks are an undeniable part of campus culture. The wackiest ideas seem to come out on April Fool’s Day and these jokes can bring the student body together in the name of creating a fun moment. It’s just critical to make sure that these jokes are fun for all, and that nobody or property is harmed in the implementation of a prank.

Here are just a few of the campus pranks and hoaxes schools have dealt with, and how campus safety can deal with similar jokesters in their own communities

1. Car on the Dome at MIT

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology has an illustrious prank history. Over the years, the university’s most well-known building, the dome-shaped campus center, has been subject to many pranks. In 1994, a campus police car appeared on top of an MIT building on the last day of class. Engineers took metal parts of a Chevrolet Cavalier and assembled them on a wooden frame in the middle of the night. The students even placed a dummy dressed as a campus safety officer in the vehicle and put a “no permit for this location” parking ticket on the windshield.

Over the years, new students have imitated the infamous prank. In 1996, a piano was placed on top of the dome. In 2006, a red MIT fire truck was assembled on top of the dome, an homage to the original prank. One year, the whole dome was transformed to look like R2D2 from Star Wars, and another, a Police Box from Dr. Who was placed atop the building. This isn’t even the only plank the engineering whizkids at MIT have put together - once, they turned the tallest building on campus into a colorful, playable game of Tetris. An entire dorm common room was once secured, upside-down, onto the bottom of an arch on campus. It seems likely the students at the university will continue to use their ingenuity to plan elaborate pranks.

2. CalTech Signs Are Everywhere

CalTech has such a long tradition of pranks that the school actually lists them on the university website. The most well-known was a sports-related prank in 1961, when students at the school switched out the University of Washington’s cards at the Rose Bowl. When fans flipped over the card, the crowd read “CalTech”.

In 1987, the students pulled off yet another sign-related prank. Hollywood, California turned 100 in ‘87, and to celebrate, Caltech students decided to make a few changes to the famous Hollywood sign. Undergraduate students bought several hundreds of dollars worth of black and white plastic tarps and changed the Hollywood sign to read “Caltech” under the cover of night in May of that school year.

3. Flash Mob At UNC-Chapel Hill

In 2008, students at UNC Chapel Hill decided to break up exam season by having a flash mob in the local library. The prank brought hundreds of students into Davis Library for a dance party. The small rave was a good way for students to let of steam during a stressful period on campus, and in the video, campus police officers can even be seen enjoying the music and dancing. Of course, every campus safety team should be prepared for a large crowd, and it will be even safer for students and staff if the flash mob or another large scale prank.

Flash mobs were a YouTube trend that peaked in 2009, but there have been many versions of this college prank. With sing-a-longs during finals, the Harlem shake, TikTok dance videos, dance-related pranks will always be around on campus. No matter what the current trend, this relatively harmless tradition. Student safety can be managed even better if those planning the video, plan the event well and prepare an appropriate venue.  

4. MSU’s Fountain of Bubbles

In May of 2018, Missouri State University’s main fountain was filled with bubbles, causing a scene during the final full days of classes. The prank occurred just a few days before graduation, and whoever instigated it likely used laundry detergent. Unfortunately, while this prank might seem victimless, it can mean extensive clean up for the janitorial staff. Leonard Haymans III, the staff member in charge of fountain maintenance at MSU, noted that while soap wasn’t as disruptive as a dye it was still was a difficult mess to tackle.

"Soap bubbles affect the defoamer we put into the spas,” Haymans said. “And because it takes so much soap to make the fountains bubble, it causes the sand filters to clump so that we lose some of the filtration capabilities. Changing the sand filters is a labor-intensive job that I wouldn’t wish upon anyone."

There have been many fountains of bubbles pranks on college campuses. It might be tempting to put dish soap or other bubbles into a fountain, but this prank actually has a negative impact on the environment and can end up costing the college or university hundreds of dollars in repairs. Once again, students should consult with others if they are unsure what the risks are planning a prank, and should be considerate of the maintenance staff on campus.

5. The Harvard Crimson Takes On The Lampoon

Many college newspapers have a good-natured rivalry with the satire paper on campus. Harvard University’s student paper The Crimson and the parody paper, The Lampoon, perhaps has the longest-running documented feud between the two student newspapers. In 1953, Crimson staffers stole the Lampoon’s Ibis, a large bird statue perched on top of the office. The Ibis was sent to the Soviet Embassy in New York, which accepted the gift as a gesture of American friendship.

The Lampoon staff took their revenge by insisting that the prank showed the Crimson’s staff had Marxist leanings. Pranks might all be in good fun, but it might be a good idea to make sure that your students don’t meddle in international relations as part of the prank.


6. Pink Flamingos On The University of Madison Lawn

In 1979, the student government started a wacky tradition when they put 1,008 plastic flamingos on the front lawn of campus landmark Bascom Hill. Students loved the prank, and many even took the birds home for their own keeping. One of the flamingos is even owned by the state historical society for posterity. In the years since, flamingos became a tradition on campus. This whimsical prank doesn’t have high safety concerns for students, though the original prank did tap into student government funds.

7. Lady Liberty on Lake Mendota In University of Wisconsin-Madison

The pink flamingo situation was not the only time that the students at the University of Wisconsin-Madison made a visual statement. In 1979, the Pail and Shovel party of the student government made a promise to students that they would use the student budget for pranks and stunts. The group was elected, and their magnum opus was putting an enormous, fake statue of liberty on frozen Lake Mendota, making it look as if the landmark had been frozen into the lake.

Communicate on April Fool's Day

There is no need to endanger students, teachers, staff, or even animals on campus in the name of a prank. Many of these stories show that students and teachers looking to have a laugh on April Fool’s Day just need to communicate - both amongst each other, and with campus safety teams. It’s possible to have a well-planned, hilarious prank without violating school rules or putting any member of the community in danger. Make sure this information is available to students before the prank-filled holiday, and it should help minimize incidents that cause danger.

If a disruptive prank has occurred on campus, the safety team can also keep students informed as the situation develops. For example, if an area on campus needs to be closed off to clean up an aftermath of a prank, such as the bubble situation at MSU, students can be notified to avoid the area. Keeping the campus informed can help prevent disruptions in student traffic or class schedules caused by gawking. In certain situations, it may even help students not to cause panic or chaos.

Over the years, April Fools Day pranks have been part of campus life.The history behind these shenanigans shows that these jokes can be completely harmless and give those on campus a good laugh. However, there are a few jokes that might go too far, and it’s important that students understand student guidelines. Technology can be a powerful way to communicate with students, teachers, and staff, and make sure that everyone is in on the joke.

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Mary Kate McGrath

Written by Mary Kate McGrath

Mary Kate is a content specialist and social media manager for the Rave Mobile Safety team. She writes about public safety for the state & local and education spheres.

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