SOUTH PORTLAND — The high school will have only two dances this year, for homecoming and prom, due in large part to drug and alcohol use by students.
Principal Ryan Caron and Superintendent Ken Kunin cited students’ marijuana and alcohol use as major reasons for the decision, along with concerns over the number of students who leave before dances are over.
The decision to shave the number of dances from around a half dozen to only two, announced at Monday’s School Board meeting, came as the city was awarded a five-year, $625,000 federal grant from the Office of National Drug Control Policy to combat juvenile drug use.
SoPo Unite, a collaboration of community groups, police and faith-based organizations, was one of nearly 700 recipients across the country notified about the award this week.
At the School Board meeting, Caron said reducing the number of dances “was not an easy decision by any means.” But at the end of the day, he said, it’s an issue of liability.
While “substance abuse is at the heart of it, it’s also the management of the event that is sanctioned by the district,” and the need to “make sure it’s safe for students,” Caron said Wednesday. “We can’t provide the level of safety and supervision we want to provide.”
The issue came to a head last school year, at the spring and winter dances, he said.
Not only did some students have to be treated by staff and chaperones for apparently being under the influence, but other students, also believed to be intoxicated, left the dance in droves at the same time.
Compounding the issue, students from other high schools whose attendance was not been sanctioned were refusing to leave the dance, and staff had to manage the situation in the parking lot. That left only 10 chaperones to manage about 400 students during the dance, according to Caron.
When students leave early it presents a problem, Caron said.
“I believe that parents feel as though when their kids are coming to the dance, they’re being supervised by me, and a large amount of kids aren’t – they’re leaving,” he said.
He estimated a quarter to a third of students who attend dances leave early.
When that happens, “we don’t have the resources to contact each parent,” Caron said.
Efforts to mitigate the issue have been made in the last few years, including having more of a police presence at dances and allowing students to invite students from other schools into the dances.
Over the summer, Caron contacted other high schools, including Portland, Gorham, Westbrook and Biddeford, to see how their administrations handle the issue.
Many of those high schools, or schools of comparable size, “are struggling with some of the things we’re struggling with,” and have already cut down to only two dances a year, Caron told the School Board at the Sept. 12 meeting.
Caron also consulted the Police Department for advice. The “number one response back was (to) cancel the dances,” he said. “There’s too much liability to have that type of event in a public setting.”
Kunin affirmed Caron’s conclusion, and said dances are not a “core function” of the educational system.
“What’s our primary service as a school system? It’s to educate our students,” he said at the meeting.
School Board members, however, were disappointed with the decision, and some said it seemed extreme.
“I’m really struggling with this one, honestly,” Sara Goldberg said. “I think it’s a huge loss. It feels like something that kids do for fun is being taken away from them.”
Board member Tappan Fitzgerald, before he resigned at the end of the meeting, agreed.
“If you have students abusing (drugs and alcohol), canceling a dance isn’t going to stop that,” he said. “It’s going to limit your liability, I get that, but it’s not going to stop the problem. Education is going to stop the problem.”
Some students perceived the decision as belittling, even condescending.
“A lot of (students) feel unjustly blamed for something that they have no control over,” School Board student representative Julie Stanton said Wednesday. “I’ve had some students come up to me and say, ‘I’ve done nothing wrong, so why is this happening to me?'”
Caron said Wednesday that he hopes the School Department can utilize the SoPo Unite grant to come up with educational solutions and perhaps facilitate activities for students that are safer alternatives to dances.
“If the grant provides resources and opportunities to change the way we do things, then I would love to be able to offer more positive events for our students,” he said.
If the fall homecoming dance and prom in the spring go well, it’s also possible that the school will hold more dances next year, he said.
At some point, though, Stanton said, administrators should give students the option of making decisions for themselves, “so when we go off to college, we have some experience with thinking for ourselves and making smart choices.”
Stanton, 17, said she understands that school officials are concerned about student safety. But in situations like this, she said, when students have to make decisions in the face of peer pressure, “I think we should have an opportunity to make smart choices, (rather) than just leave it up to the rules and what the adults are telling us to do.”
Officials at South Portland High School have decided to offer only two dances this year – homecoming and prom – because student behavior at dances, often fueled by drug and alcohol use, is becoming too difficult to manage.