HAPPY BUT SAFE AT THE PROM; Parents Should Talk to Teens about Risks, Rules

Article excerpt

Byline: Alexandra Rockey Fleming, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

The prom means a lot to Clifton teen Stephanie Wyant. It means a long dress with spaghetti straps, a romantic evening with a handsome escort, dinner at a fancy restaurant. Prom night is "dancing and hanging out with friends and stuff," says the 17-year-old, a senior at Fairfax High School. "It's probably the biggest thing, in terms of high-school events, that I've done so far."

The prom, a multimillion-dollar industry, maintains a tremendous amount of cultural weight among teenagers, says Amy Best, author of "Prom Night: Youth, Schools and Popular Culture." In a spring 2003 study of 2,000 youngsters ages 12 to 19, 76 percent labeled the prom as an "in" event, says Michael Wood, vice president of the market-research firm Teenage Research Unlimited.

Indeed, the evening's very significance in the minds and hearts of teens creates a backdrop against which they may find themselves vulnerable or more likely to engage in risky behavior than on ordinary Saturday nights, many educators and social scientists say.

Stephanie says she knows what she should be doing on prom night - "having fun" - and drugs, drinking and sex don't fit into the plans.

"My parents don't worry about that with me because they know that I'm not going to go out and do things that are wrong," she says. "I'm not going to go over to someone's house and do 'bad stuff.' ... Some people will, but that's their choice."

Many teens do seem to make the choice, around prom time, to take a bite of forbidden fruit. Therefore, prom is one of the most important times of the year for the administrators and members of Students Against Destructive Decisions, or SADD, a peer-driven education and advocacy organization, says Penny Wells, executive director.

"We try to emphasize that, yes, prom and graduation are very special times in kids' lives, and the night to remember can be a really positive thing," she says. "It's natural and common to have times of passage and celebration, to do something extra-special for those occasions. ... It can also be a disaster. We want to prevent that night from being a disaster."

The risk of teens drinking is higher around prom and graduation than any other time of the year, Ms. Wells says.

"Sometimes kids who usually don't drink will make an exception for prom - it's that big," she says. "Why? I think there's a mythology built up around prom. The larger one is that you have to be drunk or high in order to have a good time.

"That's a powerful message that our young people receive from adults and the entertainment media. And the night of the year when kids most want to have fun is prom - there's a lot more peer pressure around that time."

Parents can add to the problem because some believe drinking is inevitable on prom night, Ms. Wells says.

"Parents just feel they have to cross their fingers and their kids will get through the night safely," she says.

Alcohol consumption can foreshadow risky sexual behavior, including date rape and sexual assault, child advocates say. Such opportunities often are aided by unheralded prom-night freedoms such as rented hotel rooms and an expanded curfew.

"Date rape is something I'd be concerned about," says Ms. Best, the "Prom Night" author and a sociology professor at San Jose State University. "Because proms are more traditional in terms of gender, they are more likely to create a scenario where young women will feel they don't have a voice, and the ante is upped for men, so the expectations among their peers that they score on prom night can cloud reason."

Many schools even mandate that students cannot attend the event without a date, Ms. Wells says, so "people may be in unfamiliar situations with people they don't know and trust."

Prom is over; now what?

Herndon High School senior Sarah Urban says peer pressure won't squeeze poor behavior out of her on prom night. …