Prom night is a night for high school juniors and seniors to have fun, celebrate the end of the year, and make lifelong memories. But it’s also a night too often marred by underage alcohol use and drunk driving accidents.
According to statistics compiled in 2001 by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 2,950 youths under age 21 were killed in alcohol-related accidents that year alone. Nearly half of those fatalities, roughly 1,012, occurred during the months of April, May and June – the months when most school proms and graduations occur.
Warwick Police Chief Col. Stephen McCartney called accidents associated with after-prom drinking “very unfortunate.” He hopes that parents are aware of the very real possibility that their children may drink on prom night, and advises everyone to be extra watchful. Before prom, school resource officers visit the schools to discuss drunk driving, and also attend proms as chaperones.
In order to prevent prom night tragedies, local schools are taking measures to educate their students on the dangers of drinking and driving. Pilgrim High School is going even further than the customary assemblies and lectures, and is hosting their fifth annual “APE,” or “After Prom Extravaganza” this Friday night after the senior prom.
APE is a school-sponsored lock-in, an all-night party in the school’s cafeteria and gymnasium that features games, raffles, prizes, movies and more. It’s a win-win situation for everyone involved, said assistant principal for grades 9 and 11, Don Miller – the students have fun and the parents and teachers know the kids are safe.
The idea for APE stemmed from Miller’s experience as a principal at a school in upstate New York, where an after-prom lock-in was customary. After the tragic death of Pilgrim grads Tiffany DeSisto and Marissa Salabert in 2007, Miller was inspired to do something to prevent further loss at the school. When he initially suggested the idea of a post-prom party at the school, students and teachers doubted it would be successful. But school staff agreed that even if only 10 kids attended, it would be worth it to keep them safe. Everyone was surprised when 130 students signed up to attend the first event in 2008.
Since then, the event has grown. This year, 272, close to 100 percent of students attending the senior prom, will attend APE.
“It’s become the thing to do,” said Miller.
Other area schools, like Warwick Vets and Toll Gate, whose senior proms are Friday and next Friday respectively, see APE as belonging to Pilgrim.
“We have pre-prom meetings,” said Toll Gate Principal Steven Chrabaszcz. The school also ensures that students arrive at prom by a certain time and leave no earlier than 11 p.m., which prevents students from sneaking out without the knowledge of adults. Chrabaszcz says communicating with students and parents about alcohol use on prom night is Toll Gate’s way of preventing accidents, and the school has no plans to implement an after-prom lock-in.
“It’s not something we’ve ever really mentioned,” he said.
Warwick Vets Principal Gerry Habershaw feels similarly.
“We’re not doing [an after-prom party],” said Habershaw. Vets checks the trunks of students’ cars for alcohol or drugs, and keeps a close eye on all prom attendees. Like Toll Gate, they also have pre-prom assemblies to discuss the dangers of alcohol on prom night.
At Pilgrim, APE has become a part of school culture, and Miller is grateful for that.
“It gives parents peace of mind,” he said. “They can get a good night’s sleep because their kid is safe.”
The kids, however, won’t be getting any sleep.
Students must arrive to APE by 12:30 a.m., and they’re locked in to the school until 5 a.m., at which time Miller encourages parents to pick students up instead of having them drive themselves home.
Upon arrival, students are given raffle tickets and a T-shirt of an undisclosed color, which they must wear the entire time. The colored shirts prevent others from sneaking into the event, and also allow chaperones to keep an eye on everyone at APE. Belongings are stowed in plastic bags in the library, and everyone receives a wristband that displays the number of their bag. Once everyone is in, the fun begins. This year there will be a mock casino, three masseuses, food from Rigatoni’s, Chipotle and other area restaurants, and assorted games. At 4 a.m., students have a Dunkin’ Donuts breakfast and the raffle begins. Prizes include microwaves, laptops, iPods and mini-fridges; things students might need at college. Miller said these prizes are a huge draw for the kids.
The school uses money raised at their Pilgrim Idol singing competition to fund APE, as well as $2,000 from the Rhode Island Substance Abuse Taskforce. Community restaurants and businesses also make substantial donations, said Miller.
“This would not be possible without the support of the community,” he said.
The school runs the event, and Miller, with the help of teachers and senior class advisors Courtney DeSousa and Kelly Harrington, plan and organize it each year. They do receive some help from parents, who volunteer their time before, during and after APE.
APE is free and open to all students who attend the Pilgrim senior prom, even if they’re underclassmen or from another school. Miller said the school does not plan to do APE for the junior class because it requires too much planning and investment.
For Miller, who used to wake up the day after prom and check the news for tragedies, APE is more than a fun time for his students.
“It’s one more thing that makes Pilgrim special,” he said.