For many high school students, prom is one of the most important nights in their teenage years. But for parents, the special occasion can be the cause of sleepless nights and countless hours of anxiety and concern.
With fears of underage drinking, impaired driving, illegal drug use and unsafe sex, the milestone can quickly turn into a parent’s worst nightmare.
To keep students safe, school administrators, faculty and parents throughout Northwest Philadelphia are teaming up to develop safety and prevention strategies for the big night.
Making safety a priority
Martin Luther King High School, a promise academy in Germantown, will hold its prom at the Loews Hotel in Center City. Because the venue space is so large, principal William C. Wade says teachers are given free tickets to attend in an effort to get a maximum number of adult supervision.
“Safety is our number one priority,” said Wade.
Throughout the school year, the school utilizes town hall meetings and mentoring programs to educate students about the school’s code of conduct. A key component in that message is to have safe transportation available to students on prom night.
“Years ago, students would do anything to drive to prom,” said Wade, “But times have changed. Students are deferring to different options.”
Wade says he encourages a ride and share program which involves students carpooling with a responsible adult driver.
“We encourage parents to get a responsible adult driver for the night,” said Wade, “We give the students a list of providers for limo companies as well.”
Wade says at the MLK prom, there will be no “spiking the punch” because his staff plans to keep a watchful eye on students throughout the event.
“We know our students; we know who to keep an eye out for,” said Wade. “We want to keep them safe and maintain this as a celebratory event.”
Creating a dialogue
At HOPE Charter School in West Oak Lane, principal Eric Worley says part of the prevention effort is sparking an open conversation with the students.
“We keep them informed – they know the repercussions of their actions,” said Worley. “If a problem arises, my staff will see it and that student will lose their admission; we make that very clear.”
Worley says staff members are stationed at the doors and do not allow any containers or oversized bags into the prom. The school’s prom is about three hours long, and he says the students have continued to show respect to the school and staff on prom night.
“We haven’t had any serious issues,” said Worley.
He adds that all outside guests will be asked to sign a form stating the school’s policies on prom night.
Trusting the students
At the Crefeld School, located in Chestnut Hill, students are allowed to dress informally, usually in sync with a theme (last year’s was “Monster Mash”). Students from grades 7 through 12 are invited to attend and may attend in groups.
“I think for us, it comes down to this: we’re a trust-based system, and that extends to our prom,” said George Zeleznik, head of school.
The Crefeld prom, which will be held at the Horizons Ballroom at the Sheraton in Center City, will have chaperones, and Zeleznik says the students know that they have a duty to act responsibility as a member of the school community.
“I stress to them that the school rules apply and these are ongoing school policies throughout the year,” said Zeleznik. “Collectively, we all want a safe and fun prom.”
Felicity DeBacco Erni, director of Pennsylvania’s Students Against Destructive Decisions (SADD) organization and staff member of the Pennsylvania Driving Under the Influence Association, says the number one thing that parents can do to prepare their teen for a safe prom night is to start a discussion.
“Talk, talk and more talk,” said Erni. “Have a conversation with your teen about what their expectations are for the evening, what they are fearful of and looking forward to the most.
SADD is a peer-to-peer school based organization that provides students with prevention and intervention tools to deal with issues including underage drinking, drug abuse, safe driving and bullying.
The Pennsylvania Driving Under the Influence Association is an organization which is working to address the DUI problem in all of its many stages including prevention, enforcement and rehabilitation.
Establish a code word
Erni says one key measure that parents can take is to set up a code word or phrase with their teen. If a teen is in a situation that they would like to escape from, they can use that word or phrase on the phone so that their parent can pick them up and remove them from the situtaion.
Know the plan
Erni says parents and teens can also prepare by knowing ahead of time the exact plans and who will be present with their teen before, during and after prom.
“Prom is partly about preparation. Picking the dress, the flowers, the tux, the car… but teens need to also have a plan for what they will do in specific situations, and set up a plan ahead of time,” said Erni.
She says there should be solid programs for students that night or weekend so that everyone has the option of being in a safe and controlled environment.
Improvements in school-based safety
Erni says in recent years, many schools have made changes to how they host prom, including more parent and teacher involvement and post-prom activities.
“Planners are engaging with local hotels asking them not to book rooms for students,” said Erni. “Community and school groups are giving students more options for the evening.”
Overall, Erni believes an open discussion with teens is the central component for a safe prom.
“Prom night is also a good lead to talk to teens about what is expected of them the other 364 days of the year involving risky behaviors,” said Erni.
Links for more prom safety tips
SADD has a “Prom Tool Kit,” which is filled with tips and ideas to plan a safe prom. Teens can print and sign a contract or pledge cards, indicating no drinking during prom season.
PostProm.org maintains a collection of thoughts, ideas, comments, and historical information documenting post prom activities, games, contests, rules, prizes, vendors, hall setup diagrams, community resources, and local sponsor lists assembled by parent volunteers who have been actively involved with planning, organizing, and scheduling after prom parties for many years.
Flip through the pages of the “After Prom Party Guide,” written by Lori Heatherington. This book helps parents plan a “fun substance-free” after-prom event.
The Pennsylvania Liquor Control Borard is on Facebook and provides information and learning-based contests on alcohol awareness and education.