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School Climate & Safety

Headache Night

By Lesli A. Maxwell — May 21, 2007 8 min read
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The dress code for this year’s prom at Oxford High School in Oxford, Ala., was clear. Girls’ dresses had to cover from the shoulders to at least 4 inches above the knee; see-through fabric and exposed midriffs were banned. Boys were to dress for a formal occasion in a suit or a tuxedo—no bluejeans allowed.

“We sent letters to parents and called the juniors and seniors together to talk frankly about appropriate dress and behavior for the prom,” said Trey Holladay, the principal of the 1,050-student high school for the past two years.

Still, on that Saturday night in late March when 600 students showed up for the dance, Mr. Holladay was prepared to deal with outfits that didn’t pass muster. Two home economics teachers stood by with needle and thread.

“There was too much cleavage,” the principal said. “My teachers sewed up about 47 dresses that night.”

Despite the dress-code breaches—and an angry mother whose daughter’s dress was sewn up—Mr. Holladay was pleased with prom night. Relieved, really.

“I think we are at a point where we have really good, safe events because of our policies,” he said. “It has taken a lot of work.”

In the midst of the 2007 junior and senior prom season, school leaders like Mr. Holladay attest to a mounting list of policies, regulations, and security measures they are enforcing for the year’s big social event. Indeed, the prom, a much-anticipated tradition for students, can conjure dread for those in charge of the often-lavish functions in an age of heightened vigilance about safety and security.

More than a dozen principals from rural, suburban, and urban high schools described taking elaborate steps to manage their proms, playing multifaceted roles that require them to be police, arbiters of taste, counselors, and sometimes parents. Overseeing a prom is the kind of in-the-trenches, detail-oriented administrative work that demands attention, even as the pressure increases on school leaders to raise student achievement and coach and inspire teachers.

There are devices like the well-known Breathalyzers to measure alcohol consumption, age restrictions on students’ dates, background checks, and lectures on how to dress and behave, principals say, and, at some schools, more sensitive matters to handle, such as same-sex couples.

“I think the way we have to handle the prom really reflects major shifts in our society, especially when it comes to kids and their [lack of] fear of getting into trouble with their parents,” said Dan Smith, the principal of South Hadley High School in South Hadley, Mass. “Parents now negotiate everything with their kids, so we’ve had to take on more of that role as a school to draw some very clear lines.”

To try to guarantee an incident-free prom night, some school leaders use extraordinary measures, and have sometimes found themselves being criticized as going too far.

Last year, administrators at a high school on Cape Cod, Mass., caused an uproar when they ordered background checks on prom escorts who were not students, then barred six of them because they had criminal records. The move prompted a state investigation into whether officials had broken the law and the public outcry prompted school officials to reverse their decision and allow the dates to attend the prom.

At a prom in Jefferson Parish, La., last month, one chaperone turned away 25 girls at the door because their dresses were considered too revealing, sparking outrage among parents and some school board members.

Striking a balance between creating fun and ensuring safety is tough, the principals said.

Alvin Watson Jr., the principal of South Mountain High School in Phoenix, spent “dozens of extra hours” this spring learning all he could about who would be at his prom. He personally interviewed the nearly 100 outside guests that his students had signed up to bring as their dates.

Most of them, Mr. Watson said, were students at other high schools. A few were in college or working, he said, although none could be older than 21.

“I sat down with each of them and gave a little talk so they knew what my rules are, what I would expect,” Mr.Watson said. “Then I looked into their eyes and asked them questions about where they go to school and where they work, if that was the case. In today’s society, we just can’t take too many precautions.”

Mr. Halladay, the Alabama principal, said it is his policy to ask for a criminal background check on an outside prom date who raises suspicions. In his two years as principal, he hasn’t done it.

“If we think there might be a problem with someone, I’d get our police department involved,” he said.

John C. Scudder, the principal of Big Spring High School in rural Newville, Pa., relies on an age-restriction strategy to limit trouble. He doesn’t allow prom dates over the age of 20, a rule he made after his first year in the job.

“To me, that just makes sense when what you are mostly trying to control is access to alcohol,” he said. “Why would you allow a date to come who is legally able to buy alcohol?”

Students who bring dates from other high schools must submit their names in advance. Mr. Scudder calls those schools to check on them, a policy that has become popular with other principals.

Of all the principals’ worries for prom night, though, alcohol consumption remains the most pressing.

Last month, at a prom in suburban Columbus, Ohio, more than 100 students were banned from the dance after alcohol was found in the limousines they had rented. A few students were also suspended. The principal pledged to “restructure the prom,” according to local media accounts.

Other principals said that while restricting who comes to the prom might help control access to alcohol, they have opted for more direct steps to combat underage drinking.

“We use Breathalyzers on everyone,” said Marta Guevara, an assistant principal at Amherst Regional High School in Amherst, Mass. “The kids know that they are going to be tested before they can come into the dance.”

Ms. Guevara said the Breathalyzer policy was initiated four years ago by student leaders who were concerned that students feel pressure from friends, and even some parents, to drink at pre-prom dinners and parties.

“The kids really wanted an official reason why they couldn’t drink, and the Breathalyzer did that,” she said. “And because the policy really came from the kids, there wasn’t a lot of controversy.”

Breathalyzers and other similar devices that test for blood alcohol content are used more and more frequently at high school events, though principals vary in how they use them. Some prefer random testing to requiring every student to blow into the machine.

“We select students using a number system that is random,” said Mike Adams, the principal of Gunnison High School in Gunnison, Colo. “It’s not meant to be punitive. We gave a lot of notice to students and parents before we started this, so no one would be caught off guard.”

That parents are often the providers of alcohol on prom night troubles Mr. Smith, the principal at South Hadley High, where drinking and using drugs became a major issue a few years ago after students were caught with heroin at school. He holds a mandatory meeting for parents and students every school year to discuss expectations for behavior at school events, including the prom. Parents and students must sign a contract that says they are responsible for the behavior of students and their guests at the prom.

“We’ve had some fairly public issues with drugs and alcohol here,” Mr. Smith said, “so we’ve had to tighten many things up.”

He ended a tradition of holding the prom an hour’s drive away from South Hadley after his first year at the school when several students showed up under the influence. He also insisted that the prom not be held at hotels, to discourage students from booking rooms.

At a Roman Catholic high school in St. Paul, Minn., administrators send out detailed letters and hold class meetings to reinforce parental and student responsibilities on prom night.

“We make it very clear to both parents and students that if they want to host a prom party, they are responsible for making it alcohol-, drug-, and hotel-free,” said Laurie Jennrich, an associate principal at Cretin-Derham Hall, a coeducational school with 1,300 students.

More and more, the principals interviewed said, the prom also has become a testing ground for tolerance and policies that long have assumed the event to be exclusively for heterosexual couples. Several public and private high schools across the country have banned same-sex couples from the prom, and in some places, have not allowed students to come alone or in groups of friends.

At South Hadley High, Mr. Smith faced the issue in 2000, when a lesbian couple attended the prom. Since then, same-sex couples have gone to the prom every year, although none have been boys. “We are a public school and believe that they have all the rights afforded to heterosexual couples,” Mr. Smith said. At Cretin-Derham Hall, Ms. Jennrich said, same-sex couples haven’t been an issue, unlike at some Catholic schools.

“Our prom is not a date dance, because we want all students to attend,” she said. “We really encourage groups of friends to attend together, whether it’s boys, girls, or a mixture.”

One principal offers a solution to all the prom issues that vex him and his colleagues: Get rid of it, said Patrick Walsh, the principal at the 270-student Kenyon-Wanamingo High School in southern Minnesota.

“I just don’t like the amount of money that is spent on the prom,” Mr.Walsh said. “Parents who allow their children to get hotel rooms and limousines, to me that is just over the top and out of control.”

Coverage of leadership is supported in part by a grant from The Wallace Foundation.
A version of this article appeared in the May 23, 2007 edition of Education Week as Headache Night

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