THE REFORMED PROM - Is The Party Over? Drinking, excessive cost, and social exclusivity spur new guidelines for Prom 2003

High school prom procedures are undergoing reviews and revisions across the county, as districts try to gain some control over the alcohol consumption, cost and social exclusivity commonly associated with the event. What started out as a case by case remedy to specific alcohol-related incidents is slowly becoming a more preventive approach to prom management. Up to five Westchester high schools are currently instituting changes in their prom procedures, partly based on what is now referred to as the Bronxville model, which requires participation in a school-based pre-prom event and school sponsored busing to and from the prom.

The Bronxville Model Bronxville proposed prom reform after its 1999 junior prom, when some kids were sent home for drinking and others left the costly event early to party elsewhere, presumably with alcohol. Principal Peter Clarke expressed concern about excessive student drinking and spending in a three-page letter to parents, and the junior class was assigned the task of coming up with a new prom format or risk losing the prom altogether. The resulting plan included a PTA-sponsored pre-prom party at the high school, attended by students and parents, and then school-sponsored, mandatory, chaperoned coach buses to and from the prom. By cutting limos out of the loop, Bronxville effectively reduced drinking, cost, and emphasis on dates and groups. This plan, now characterized as a success, is going into its fourth year. One can't help but wonder how the kids really feel about all of this. There was initially some resistance to the approach in Bronxville, with about 25 seniors opting out of the prom completely in the first year. Parent Council chairperson Judy Santoro admits that the first year was a "little rocky" and that "kids felt that a right was being taken away," but says it has since become a "new tradition" in the community. The pre-prom is now even attended by returning graduates and people who don't have kids going to the prom. Karen Coons, junior class advisor and teacher, says that the kids are now happy with the new system. With close to 100 percent of juniors and seniors attending in the last two years, Coons notes, "The numbers speak for themselves. The vast majority of kids attend, and they're clean and sober." To date, there has been only one incident with alcohol under this new system, and the offending student was accordingly suspended. While after-prom activities are still a factor, Coons considers that a "family decision" since it ceases to be a school event at that point. Most kids do go on to other events, she says, but even if they are being picked up by limos after the bus drop-off at school, many parents meet the buses just to say hello and see everyone.

Others join in Other schools have since looked at Bronxville's plan and have come up with their own, sometimes modified, solutions. The underlying critical issue lies in busing, which cuts the substance abuse risk, cost and social pressure inherent in group limo transportation. Rye, Valhalla and Mahopac students, parents and administrations have all responded to alcohol-related incidents that took place at last year's proms by instituting mandatory busing to the prom this year, with varied approaches to the return trip. Rye principal Jim Rooney says this year's prom "had to be rearranged for everyone to arrive and leave sober." He adds that with parents dropping kids off at school, the kids "won't be tempted to load up before the prom," and just to make sure, no backpacks will be allowed on the buses which will also return the kids to school. Mahopac will offer an option for students to leave the prom by limo, provided parents sign off, but there will be no more early-leave policy. Building principal Aaron Trummer says the change includes a "very restrictive timetable" outlining when kids must arrive and leave. He adds that while parental signature on sobriety forms is already in place, Mahopac will go a step further this year and actually meet with and talk to parents of anyone attending the prom about attendance and sobriety. Valhalla's prom restructuring is also based on discontinued use of limos. According to superintendent Tom Kelly, the "difficulties lie in the unsupervised nature of limos," with some of the companies in business only for proms, allowing too many kids and unrestricted stops before and after the event. He compliments the Valhalla high school students as being "the epitome of a class act at the prom," but hopes to gain more control over pre- and post- activities, even though not school-sponsored. Scarsdale will also be joining the mandatory bus bandwagon this year, but not solely in response to its homecoming fiasco this past fall. The district has reportedly been reviewing possible changes for several years with an eye towards Bronxville as its proms grew more elaborate and costly. Superintendent Dr. Michael McGill describes high school principal Jon Klemme's efforts to address three issues: "Cost and conspicuous consumption associated with limos; exclusiveness of participation and degree to which people feel marginalized; and consumption of alcohol." While a pre-prom school reception and mandatory buses to the prom are already in place this year, the outstanding issue at the time of this writing was whether students can leave in limos. PTA president Michelle Lichtenberg says that since the students' concern is "not wanting to be held captive at the prom," the compromise may lie, instead, in offering staggered buses for departure so that they have flexibility. The ongoing discussion reflects the inherent challenge of trying to change a culture. Lichtenberg admits that the "bus will not guarantee but encourage sobriety," and notes that "while the students were not initially happy about this change, they acknowledge it is a serious step to making a sober evening." While there is an organized senior breakfast the morning after the prom, there is still unsupervised after-prom activity in between.

“After-prom” In most of these cases, the prevalent attitude toward after-prom activities is that the kids are "on their own" once they leave the prom. But in Mamaroneck a parent group grew hesitant about relinquishing responsibility for after-prom, since almost everyone continues on to other potentially dangerous and unsupervised activities; the group wanted to take preventive measures. According to PTA co-president Nancy Pierson: "The problem with the Bronxville model is that it breaks down after prom. We can't just wash our hands and say we've done everything, now go drink!" She adds that the PTA can actually have more control over the after-prom party, since it is not school-sponsored. The group was unsuccessful in eliciting sufficient parent response to mandate bus transportation to and from the actual prom, and therefore could only offer optional buses for this year's event. The PTA did, however, meet with more success in revamping Mamaroneck's junior after-prom and is sponsoring its own party this year. The junior after-prom event has typically ended up at a loft location that remains unannounced until the night of the event, supposedly to keep crashers away . Perceived as an accident waiting to happen, the PTA got together with the junior class to see if they could put together a party for them, with their input, that could accommodate the overall goal of student safety. As with Bronxville, kids were somewhat resistant initially, but the administration supported the parent group in getting the kids together to listen. If they didn’t, Pierson comments, "They knew their parents would put up enough of a fight to cancel the party." And so this year's PTA-supervised junior after-prom party will take place at a NYC loft, with optional busing offered to and from both the prom and the after-prom parties. At $15 per person, this will hopefully be enticing, compared to the typical limo cost of $40-$50 per person (but as high as $120), says Gill Watt, junior prom parent committee representative. Asked if kids seem to mind the parental involvement, Watt responds, "The kids are getting a great event that is as inclusive as possible, so they're not necessarily resentful about parental involvement."

Perfect solutions? As for the absence of mandatory busing, Pierson says, "It may be baby steps but let's get what we can for the safety of our kids." There is not dissent, however, over this decision; Janet Buchbinder, chairperson of the Westchester and East Putnam District PTA on Substance Abuse, and Mamaroneck member of RADAR (Responsible Action: Drug & Alcohol Resource), worries that the optional buses are "doomed to fail" in achieving the goal of keeping kids safe, since they undermine any efforts to cut out alcohol consumption. Nonetheless, as with the other schools, kids still are expected to arrive sober. Scarsdale PTA president Michelle Lichtenberg emphasizes that efforts to revamp the prom are not based on punishing students for specific behaviors, but rather on an attempt "to bring it back to a grassroots community event that parents can participate in." Gill Watt concludes, "With all the possible problems, it's important to seem to be doing something; kids can't be left on their own." The message, he says, is, "It's a special night. Don't spoil it by drinking!"