- Associated Press - Saturday, April 23, 2016

OMAHA, Neb. (AP) - Trent Steele put on his wet suit.

He climbed the ladder on the dunk tank. A cold wind whipped across his bare feet. Within minutes, a student’s well-aimed baseball dropped him into the 40-something-degree water.

“Refreshing,” he told the Omaha World-Herald (https://bit.ly/26gK5PV ) later, a bit tongue-in-cheek. “It gave me some new energy at 2 a.m.”

Dunking their assistant principal was among the featured attractions meant to draw students to the Papillion-La Vista South post prom Saturday.

All across the Midlands this time of year, parents and school officials try to line up attractions irresistible to teens to lure them away from less wholesome pursuits after the dance.

It’s a challenge - not only the massive organizational effort to put on these early-morning parties, but also the battle against kids’ perceptions that post prom “isn’t cool” or just isn’t fun.

With cardboard, glue guns, duct tape and tempura paints, parents transform hallways and gymnasiums into enchanted fantasy lands. They haul in inflatable amusements and serve mountains of treats from cookies to corndogs and hot wings.

They hire hypnotists, caricature artists and Elvis impersonators and rent Las Vegas-style table games where kids gamble with play money. They lock in kids at bowling alleys and movie theaters.

“Our goal is to keep students safe,” Steele said. “Anything we can do to help in that effort, we will.”

Post prom can even rival prom in popularity. For instance, Elkhorn High School had 410 students at prom and 430 at post prom. Gretna High had 450 at prom and 485 at post prom, and Millard North’s prom drew 1,200 kids, while post prom had 900.

At Omaha Central, though, students estimated that about 20 percent of prom attendees go to post prom. The student council sold about 150 post-prom tickets last year; this year, they’re aiming for 200 for tonight’s event.

Organizers say that each year they try to keep post-prom parties appealing. They change themes, introduce new acts and up the “wow” factor to keep kids coming back.

Parents at Millard South adopted a circus theme for their event last Saturday: “Under the Big Top: The Latest Show on Earth.”

Volunteers painted 160 4-by-8-foot panels in stripes, harlequin designs and murals to create false walls throughout the building. They created a 19-panel roller coaster, train cars, a 10-foot Ferris wheel, a life-size cannon, elephants, clowns and a big-top tent. There was a contortionist and a Cirque du Soleil-style performer hanging from the gym ceiling.

“They really go all out,” said Terry Buckley, co-chair of the post-prom committee. “And that’s been the approach every year because they want to keep the kids coming back to provide the safe atmosphere for them so they’re not out getting into trouble.”

Post-prom planning started last June, with the work taking place in homes, garages and the fenced-off storage bays at Millard South known as “the cages.” Even in the last few days before zero hour, Millard South parents were touching up paint and running over check lists.

Balloon structures and arches. Check.

Screws to attach decorations. Check.

Map of electrical outlets in the school. Check.

David Cully, who served as the entertainment chairman, has helped out for three years. His son Mason is a senior. Cully got involved when his older son, Tyler, was a senior.

During a sign-up for classes, Cully noticed the post-prom committee had a booth. When he asked about it, he was told the story of two students from Millard South who went to prom in 1984 and never came home.

The two died when their vehicle plunged off a country road where a bridge had been removed to make way for the future Wehrspann Lake. There was no post prom back then. Alcohol was not involved.

“So I put my name in the hat, and said, ‘I’ll do whatever you want,’ ” Cully said. “I got a call the next week, and they said, ‘How would you like to help chair the entertainment committee?’ “

Organizers pitch the event to seniors as their “last hurrah,” he said. Still, not all are convinced.

“Some kids, it’s just not their thing,” Cully said. “They get swayed, maybe, thinking it’s not cool. But the kids who are involved and want to be involved are going to get the most out of the experience.”

Some volunteers work 50 hours over four days for setup and cleanup, he said.

Jane Fleming, a volunteer who helped solicit donations from businesses, hopes that her daughter, Bailee, appreciates the effort.

“I hope 20 years from now they give it back to their children and realize, ‘Wow, that post prom was amazing,’ ” Fleming said.

Lori Johnson, co-chairwoman of the post-prom committee, said the massive parental effort is “a little bit of crazy.”

Her daughter, Ashlyn Johnson, is a senior. She said children don’t stay young forever.

“For me, it’s sharing in some of her experiences as she grows up,” Lori Johnson said.

Omaha North High PTSO president Nickie Landis has a surefire strategy for attracting kids to post prom.

“Bribe ‘em with food and prizes,” she said.

Tonight, at the “Back to the Future”-themed event, North juniors, seniors and their dates can trade their tuxes and beaded dresses for comfy hoodies.

With a $7 ticket, they can chow down on nachos and hot dogs, marvel at painted panels depicting the movie’s iconic clock tower and enter raffles to win an iPad mini, laptops, flat-screen TVs and mini-fridges perfect for college dorm rooms.

“Some only come as seniors because they want to win the prizes,” said Michelle Kaczmarek, a North mom who leads the post-prom effort.

Others come for the elaborate atmosphere created by parents, volunteers and student council members who spend hours painting and constructing decorations on doughnut-and-coffee-fueled Saturday mornings.

They’ll transform the cafeteria into a swinging casino where students can play blackjack and craps to win “Brotherman bucks,” a nod to one of Principal Gene Haynes’ famous greetings. A gym will become an adventure course with a mechanical bull and an obstacle course. Part of one hallway will become a 1950s-esque sweet shop decorated to mimic the “Enchantment Under the Sea” dance that Marty McFly crashes in “Back to the Future.”

“It’s fun to see them, and they thank you at the end,” Landis said. “They say, “How did you guys do this?’ “

The answer is a dedicated corps of volunteers who want to provide teens with an after-prom alternative to drinking-fueled house parties.

“The parents know they’re somewhere safe until 3 a.m.,” said Michelle Reily, a Burke High parent and post-prom coordinator. “It’s just peace of mind, all around.”

Organizers take different tacks to persuade teens to skip after-parties and head to chaperoned events in high school gyms. Many rely on tweets, posters and word-of-mouth from students to drum up ticket sales.

The school-based events can carry a hefty price tag. North High spent $12,000 on its circus-themed event last year. Ticket sales, donations, concessions at sports events, parent-teacher groups and booster clubs typically cover the costs.

Other schools, such as Westside, Burke and Central, stick to bowling alleys, arcades or movie theaters that don’t require hours of setup and cleanup.

On April 23, as many as 350 Burke students will head to the Alley V bowling alley in west Omaha. Attendees get bowling, laser tag, arcade games and a buffet for $20. Students can pose for a caricature artist, get an airbrushed tattoo and laugh at hypnotized classmates.

“Off-site takes a lot of pressure off the parents and volunteers,” Reily said. “Once this gets over at 3 a.m., we can just walk out of the V. We’re not at the school picking up till 5 a.m.”

Central High revamped its post-prom event several years ago after years of dwindling ticket sales.

“My first year as principal, we ended up with maybe 40 kids,” said Keith Bigsby, Central’s former principal. “Every kid was getting two prizes. It just didn’t attract them.”

Organizers met with the student council and came up with the idea of a “Giving Back Gala.” Organizers rent out the Marcus Midtown Cinema, where kids worn out from dancing can curl up and watch a movie, munch on popcorn and collect donations for student-selected charities.

“Most of the people on student council, since we planned it, we’re excited about it, and all of our friends are going to go, too,” senior Elise Saniuk said.

Students like the laid-back atmosphere and sticking close to the downtown high school, said Candi Kadar, a Central teacher and student council adviser. The budget is also smaller - the movie night typically costs about $2,100.

“The cool thing for me about this is it’s already done, there’s not a lot of decorating, and I don’t have to have parent volunteers,” she said. “The kids, all they really want to do is chill out after prom. Eat and chill.”


Information from: Omaha World-Herald, https://www.omaha.com

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