Parents: It’s Prom Week and I Know How You Feel

Prom is such an important rite of passage in the American experience because it symbolizes a child’s entry into adulthood. It has its roots in old spring cotillions and debutante balls where a young lady was presented to society as old enough to go out on dates with young men.

I love the Richwood tradition of the promenade because it is still tied to those old traditions. If you’ve never attended one, you’ve never seen anything like it. All the seniors are presented in their gowns and tuxedoes midst the corny cardboard and glitter scene they’ve spent the last week building.

Afterward, the gym looks like a gala at the Academy Awards. Kids are made to pose with Mammaw, Pappaw, Mom, Dad, Dad’s wife and step kids, Mom’s boyfriend, Aunt Betty and Uncle Earl, Mr. James and other favorite teachers, all the little star struck cousins, someone’s baby with a pacifier in its mouth. It’s a family affair. A community affair. It’s wholesome.

It’s also the most dangerous night of the year.

When I was a sophomore in high school, a carload of seniors was drag racing outside the city limits after their prom crashed. All six inside were killed. Kent Farquarson was the driver. I find it unbelievable that I can still remember his name.

Here are some sobering statistics from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) and The National Center for Injury Prevention and Control and AAA.

  • April thru July sees some of the highest teenage traffic fatalities of the entire year.
  • The fatal crash rate per mile driven for 16-19-year-olds is nearly 3 times the rate for drivers ages 20 and over.
  • The fatal crash rate per mile driven is nearly twice as high for 16-17-year-olds as it is for 18-19-year-olds.
  • .54% of the deaths of teenage passengers in passenger vehicles occurred in vehicles driven by another teenager.
  • Among deaths of passengers of all ages, 14% occurred when a teenager was driving.
  • 41% said it was likely that they or their friends would use drugs or alcohol on prom night.

While there are no hard numbers on the incidence of date rapes occurring on prom night, the risk of being victimized is almost certainly higher on prom night when alcohol is involved.

Prom is terrifying for parents. We agonize over how much money is appropriate to spend on tuxes and hairdos and gowns. We dress our babies up in uncomfortable expensive grown-up clothes. We give them keys to a car. We send a prayer up to heaven that they make good decisions and come home alive and well the next morning.

But last year an employee at the central office posted over 40 photos of her daughter and the son of another central office employee. The photos showed the couple in seductive poses, sipping what looked like martinis and brandishing handguns. More photos showed them in a mock arrest and handcuffing in which the Summersville police participated.

These photos appeared to be taken outside the school function at a private after-prom party. You might say it’s none of my business how these families want to memorialize their children’s prom.

But the photos are harmful in two ways.

First, because they were publicly posted by a prominent school official, they sent the message that dangerous behavior is okay. This is what the “cool kids” do after prom. It appeared these teens had adult supervision, and I certainly assume the martinis and guns were just props. But other teens might try and emulate that behavior with disastrous outcomes.

Second, the parents who posted these did a grave disservice to their own children’s chances at college admission, scholarships, and hiring. Social media searches are now standard procedure in most college admission and hiring procedures. It stunned me these photos were posted by school administrators.

Parents, if this is your first prom, I know you will be doing a lot of smiling, weeping and praying this weekend. But take it from me, a mother of five: even though your children look like they are grown up in their tuxes and gowns, remember: it’s just been a couple of years since they were playing with Barbies. Post photos of them with Mammaw and Aunt Betty. Do not post or allow them to post photos of themselves in any situation that might harm their future or set a bad example for other teens.

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Susan Johnson

Susan Matthis Johnson is a former West Virginia Journalism Teacher of the Year and Nicholas County Teacher of the Year. She sponsored the Woodchopper and later the Lumberjack News at Richwood High School for 25 years. In 2012 she joined the PBS NewsHour Student Reporting Labs project as the only mentor in West Virginia. The RHS lab produced several stories for the NewsHour including coverage of President Obama's visit to Charleston, the Charleston water crisis, the "Buckwild" reality show, and the politics of coal. Her first job was as a cub reporter for Jim Comstock and Bronson McClung's Richwood News Leader. Currently she is a contributing writer for the Charleston Gazette-Mail. Along with that, her column "My Side of the Mountain" appears weekly in the Nicholas Chronicle.
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