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ThreeSixty Journalism: Making it fun. Keeping it safe.

Teens and teachers talk about how to stay safe and avoid the risks of sex and alcohol on prom night.FROM THREESIXTY JOURNALISM


To most teens, no dance is more important than prom. There’s the perfect dress and rented tux, the limo and updo, the flowers and after-parties. Often there is also sex, drinking and dirty dancing, and the risk of damage that can last a lifetime.

As prom season starts, teens and teachers are planning how to make that special night fun while keeping it safe.

Angie Maharaj, senior at Eden Prairie High School, doesn’t have to be told not to do something she doesn’t think is right. “I would personally never do it, either of them [drinking or sex], but if the people who I’m with decide that’s how they’re going to spend their prom night, I’m not going to getting in the way,” she said. Disappointing herself or her parents isn’t part of her prom night agenda.

Many teens take care to protect themselves and their friends. Briana Lindsey, a senior at North High School in Minneapolis, has a basic rule: “No drinking and driving. One person has to be in charge and be the designated driver, and not drink. We always have a DD.”

David Lurvey, a 17-year-old student at Patrick Henry High School in Minneapolis, doesn’t plan to drink after prom. “I guess if things get out of hand I can bring people home or call for help… I don’t think there is much to be worried about. The group I’m going with seems to be pretty cool.”

Some parents allow students to drink at their homes after the dance, reasoning that they are safer there than on the streets. One Twin Cities’ senior described last year’s prom: “We all drank afterwards, and we smoked hookah. We didn’t get drunk though. No sexual activity occurred. There were parents there. They didn’t supply but they did give us a place to stay… They’d rather have us somewhere safe than out on the streets. They know we’re going to do something, so they would rather control it.”

Nancy Pudas, physical education teacher and prom advisor for the past eight years at Eden Prairie High School, thinks that’s a mistake: “Some parents and kids think prom as a rite of passage, but it isn’t! It’s just a dance; you’re still in high school. Using alcohol or sex to show that [rite of passage]. Well, that could be life-altering.”

Paul Compton, work-based learning and prom coordinator for Henry High School, advises parents not to host parties with alcohol or reserve hotel rooms for their teens. “What sense does it make for a 17-year-old to rent a hotel room for the night?” he asked.

At Eden Prairie, Pudas and the principal sent a letter to parents, urging them not to book hotel rooms for their children. “Nothing good will happen in a hotel room with a group of 16, 17, 18 year-olds,” she said.

Reminders of the risks

Many schools use the days before prom to remind teens about the dangers of drinking and driving or having unprotected sex. At Burnsville High School, students performed a skit showing a girl in a prom dress lying bleeding next to a smashed car.

At Central High School in St. Paul, a student advisory group distributes brochures about how to be a healthy party girl, including information about birth control and morning-after contraception.

“I don’t want to see the March babies” conceived on prom night, Traci Olson, St. Paul Central’s prom coordinator and math teacher, tells students. She believes teens are savvier about such risks than in the past. “Our girls are getting much smarter, knowing that this could ruin the rest of their lives. It’s a different mindset,” she said.

Teens also watch out for each other. “My friends and I keep each other safe by not allowing each other to do things out of our character while under the influence of weed or alcohol,” says Briana Lindsey, who plans to rent hotel rooms and party with friends after North’s prom.

Formality, fun and limits
Prom coordinators, the teachers who plan each school’s festivities, have plenty of strategies for keeping the events safe while making them fun.

At Central High School’s prom at Landmark Center May 3, there are free carriage rides around Rice Park. At Henry’s prom, there is a grand march where each couple is introduced before the dancing begins. Halfway through the dance, students raise commemorative champagne flutes — filled with punch — to toast the class of 2008.

Prom coordinators also set strict limits. At Highland Park High School in St. Paul, students must buy tickets from Sandra Rubenstein, a history teacher and no-nonsense 18-year veteran of prom planning. She warns them that anyone who shows signs of alcohol consumption won’t be admitted to the dance — and there will be no refunds on tickets. To reinforce the point, two cops with Breathalyzers share the front desk at prom with Rubenstein.

In addition, prom-goers must attend a mandatory meeting with Rubenstein a few days before prom. If students invite guests from outside their school, the guests can’t be older than 20. And guests must fill out forms and have their employer or school counselor certify that they are in school or employed.

At Henry, outside guests must fill out forms in advance, be screened by the police liaison and approved by the principal. This year, three guests were denied permission to attend, Compton reports.

Central’s Olson believes the early warnings protect students from being embarrassed at the prom. “You don’t want to look 
like a jerk in a $200 gown or throw up on the tuxedo you rented,” she said.

To keep the punch bowls from being spiked, Olson keeps them covered and stations adult chaperones nearby. At Benilde-St. Margaret’s, a Catholic high school in Golden Valley, administrators discourage teens from drinking by administering random Breathalyzer tests at the dance.

“No one drinks at the dance whatsoever,” reported one senior. “People used to, but now … no one is willing to take that chance.”

Clothes aren’t an issue
Few schools try to regulate how much cleavage students show. “That’s a societal thing,” Rubenstein said. But Highland’s prom coordinator does set limits on headgear to prevent hats from being used to show gang affiliations. Only hats rented with tuxes are allowed for guys and scarves or tiaras for girls.

Outside organizations such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving), Prom Plus, and BUZZFREE Prom provide schools with buttons, stickers, pledge sheets and DVDs to help promote safe activities on prom night. In the end, it’s up to teens.

“We’re all going to rent a campsite and have like a bonfire in our prom dresses and just stay out in the middle of nowhere and just have fun,” said Alesia Casanova, a senior at Eden Prairie High School.

With high expectations, and great night ahead, the last place prom-goers would want to be is in the bathroom throwing up or worse. We’re all adults here. Let’s act like it and be responsible.

Tiana Daun and Ariel Kendall contributed to this article.


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