- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 4, 2003

The prom means a lot to Clifton teen Stephanie Wyant. It means a long dress with spaghetti straps, a romantic evening with a handsome escort, dinner at a fancy restaurant.

Prom night is “dancing and hanging out with friends and stuff,” says the 17-year-old, a senior at Fairfax High School. “It’s probably the biggest thing, in terms of high-school events, that I’ve done so far.”

The prom, a multimillion-dollar industry, maintains a tremendous amount of cultural weight among teenagers, says Amy Best, author of “Prom Night: Youth, Schools and Popular Culture.” In a spring 2003 study of 2,000 youngsters ages 12 to 19, 76 percent labeled the prom as an “in” event, says Michael Wood, vice president of the market-research firm Teenage Research Unlimited.

Indeed, the evening’s very significance in the minds and hearts of teens creates a backdrop against which they may find themselves vulnerable or more likely to engage in risky behavior than on ordinary Saturday nights, many educators and social scientists say.

Stephanie says she knows what she should be doing on prom night — “having fun” — and drugs, drinking and sex don’t fit into the plans.

“My parents don’t worry about that with me because they know that I’m not going to go out and do things that are wrong,” she says. “I’m not going to go over to someone’s house and do ‘bad stuff.’ … Some people will, but that’s their choice.”

Many teens do seem to make the choice, around prom time, to take a bite of forbidden fruit. Therefore, prom is one of the most important times of the year for the administrators and members of Students Against Destructive Decisions, or SADD, a peer-driven education and advocacy organization, says Penny Wells, executive director.

“We try to emphasize that, yes, prom and graduation are very special times in kids’ lives, and the night to remember can be a really positive thing,” she says. “It’s natural and common to have times of passage and celebration, to do something extra-special for those occasions. … It can also be a disaster. We want to prevent that night from being a disaster.”

The risk of teens drinking is higher around prom and graduation than any other time of the year, Ms. Wells says.

“Sometimes kids who usually don’t drink will make an exception for prom — it’s that big,” she says. “Why? I think there’s a mythology built up around prom. The larger one is that you have to be drunk or high in order to have a good time.

“That’s a powerful message that our young people receive from adults and the entertainment media. And the night of the year when kids most want to have fun is prom — there’s a lot more peer pressure around that time.”

Parents can add to the problem because some believe drinking is inevitable on prom night, Ms. Wells says.

“Parents just feel they have to cross their fingers and their kids will get through the night safely,” she says.

Alcohol consumption can foreshadow risky sexual behavior, including date rape and sexual assault, child advocates say. Such opportunities often are aided by unheralded prom-night freedoms such as rented hotel rooms and an expanded curfew.

“Date rape is something I’d be concerned about,” says Ms. Best, the “Prom Night” author and a sociology professor at San Jose State University. “Because proms are more traditional in terms of gender, they are more likely to create a scenario where young women will feel they don’t have a voice, and the ante is upped for men, so the expectations among their peers that they score on prom night can cloud reason.”

Many schools even mandate that students cannot attend the event without a date, Ms. Wells says, so “people may be in unfamiliar situations with people they don’t know and trust.”

Prom is over; now what?

Herndon High School senior Sarah Urban says peer pressure won’t squeeze poor behavior out of her on prom night. Sarah, 17, will attend her school’s event, scheduled for June 7 at the Dulles Hyatt, with her 18-year-old boyfriend, Sam, and a bunch of other friends.

“I’m not a drinker,” she says. “Some of my friends do, but it’s not on a regular basis. My parents trust me. I have never done anything bad to lose their trust yet. My closest friends — their parents trust the kids, so if they know where they are, it’s OK.”

Sarah’s parents, Sheila and Bruce Urban, say they won’t worry about their daughter on prom night.

“I trust her,” Mrs. Urban says. “I like her boyfriend and don’t have any misgivings. You teach them … to be responsible starting when they’re little.”

Safety nets are nice, however, and Herndon High offers one every year.

After the last song plays at their prom, Sarah and her friends will change into shorts and T-shirts before heading over to a local cafe for the school’s “afterprom,” an extravaganza of an event organized and staffed by parents and PTA members.

The afterprom comes with a price tag of $8,000 to $10,000, and the money is drummed up all year long via fund-raisers and donations from local businesses, Mrs. Urban says.

Before finally bidding each other sweet dreams at 5 a.m., students will have enjoyed the opportunity to sumo wrestle, joust, dance and munch on teen favorites such as pizza.

The afterprom is a lot of fun, Sarah says, and it’s put on “so people won’t go to the hotels and stuff and drink.”

In Alexandria, T.C. Williams High School students will be on their own after the prom doors close. Their all-night gala is reserved for graduation night, says Principal John Porter, who has served at the school’s helm for 19 years.

“I don’t think I want to speculate,” he says, about where teens will go after the prom. “There will be parties, I’m sure. Parents need to make sure if they’re going to a party, it’s chaperoned. They need to make sure they stay in touch with what’s going on in their child’s life. Everybody needs to work together to make sure everyone comes through safely and has a fun and memorable experience — all in positive ways, of course.”

Hyattsville police Cpl. Mike Rudinski says he sees an increase in underage drinking, drinking and driving, and parties around prom time. As a school resource officer at Northwestern High School in Hyattsville, Cpl. Rudinski says, “We specifically try to target our talks about alcohol awareness around prom time so it’s fresh in their minds about making better decisions.”

One program offered to some of Northwestern’s 2,600 students is called Fatal Vision and involves using goggles that simulate alcohol impairment.

“I’ve been a police officer for 17 years, and around prom time, we’ve had situations with young people involved in accidents,” says Cpl. Rudinski, who also serves as president of the Maryland Association of School Resource Officers. “This increases our awareness and our technique to use a proactive approach to it.”

In addition, Northwestern will provide an afterprom for students.

“The students really take a lot of pride in attending those things,” he says. “They go, and it gets them off the streets, and it keeps them from unsafe behavior.”

Students at Friendly High School in Fort Washington are prepped for the season via programs and discussions about prom-time behavior. Members of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, or MADD, are invited to the school to “give an overview of pitfalls,” for example, Principal John Brooks says.

“It’s a great preventative measure,” he says. “Most kids already know what the expectations are. They understand that the prom is part of the regular school activities, and they’re expected to behave accordingly.”

Friendly will not be the conduit to an after-prom activity this year. Instead, Mr. Brooks says his students will go home after their prom is over.

“That’s what most of them will do,” he says. “It’s a formal evening.”

Still, Mr. Brooks says he always worries about his students taking chances — “whether it’s prom night or any other day. We just hope that they use those coping and reasoning skills we’ve embedded during their whole careers in high school. Prom night will pass, I guarantee you.”

Rules of engagement

Certainly prom night will pass, but parents must make sure it passes safely, says longtime family therapist Carleton Kendrick.

“Think back to your own prom,” he says. “This isn’t new. There were hopes about it, there were disappointments, and there were dangers associated with it. Essentially, what goes along with it in terms of the risks — what’s at stake and what’s hoped for — is still the same.”

That’s why there’s been a push, a decade and a half old, or so, to provide alternatives for that time just after the prom — “giving them presents, etcetera, and locking the door,” says Mr. Kendrick, co-author of the just-published “Take Out Your Nose Ring Honey, We’re Going to Grandma’s.”

Mr. Kendrick tells parents of prom-going teens to discuss the big night with their children — often — before it comes up on the calendar.

“Discuss drinking, drugging, sex, what happens when you drive under the influence,” he says. “Tell them you hope they have a wonderful, memorable time, but they really do need to give you their complete itinerary for the evening. It’s got to be a deal that’s struck. Where will you be, phone numbers. You cannot accept the fact that they say, ‘After the prom, we’ll be driving around.’ There can’t be any vagueness to this.”

If students are renting a limousine, parents should talk to the driver, Mr. Kendrick says.

“Get him aside when he drives up and ask him, ‘What is your rule about letting this 96-foot thing turn into a bar?’ You need to let him know you’re conferring adulthood on the limo driver — even if he’s an 18-year-old kid. That one rule is nonnegotiable,” he says.

Parents can’t prevent their teens from engaging in sex, using drugs or drinking alcohol, Mr. Kendrick says, but parents can request a pledge from their children that they won’t imbibe and drive or be driven by someone else who is impaired, he says.

“You need their sworn word on that because you love them so much,” the author says.

Parents also should impress upon their children that if they find themselves in any trouble at all, “you will come and scoop them up and take them home, no questions asked,” Mr. Kendrick says. “This is not the night to plan an escapade where you’re unavailable, a weekend at the Hamptons.”

Finally, parents should come to a fair decision about curfew based on what they believe is their child’s level of responsibility, he says.

“In this area, the only way to judge that is by what’s happened in the past. I would not at all give them the details of your own prom experience, but you can say you understand and the reason why you understand isn’t that you don’t trust them, but you have experience why prom night makes it harder to make safe and smart decisions. It’s almost like blame it on prom night, not blame it on the kids,” Mr. Kendrick says.

“You say, ‘If you continue to be the child I know you are, you are going to come out of this with a great memory and no regrets.’”



Click to Read More

Click to Hide