Thursday, April 01, 2010

Prom problems? You must be kidding.

File this one under You must be kidding me.

CNN reported today that an Alabama teenager was suspended from school because her prom dress violated the school dress code. While revealing, the dress is far from risque. What's even more shocking, however, is that the girl, Erica DeRamus, had a choice of punishments and chose to take a three-day suspension over a paddling.

Pardon? Paddling? There are schools that sanction the use of corporal punishment against their students? I assumed, wrongly it seems, that paddling was an archaic method of punishment that long-ago faded away in the school systems. According to one human rights group, however, over 200,000 children were paddled in school in 2008. And in the case of DeRamus's school, 17 potential prom-goers chose to be paddled, rather than face suspension from school.

So while I shake my head in disbelief that this girl was punished for the look of her dress, I'm outraged that missing the prom (or being asked to change dresses) wasn't consequence enough and that the chosen punishment was paddling. According to the school's principal, Trey Holloday, 18 students violated the prom's dress code; all but DeRamus chose paddling over suspension. The principal states that young people make mistakes, and that school officials are "very patient when those [mistakes] are made -- including this -- but we're not tolerant of bad behavior or defiance."

It seems to me that Principal Holloday has several problems on his hands. First, he says he's patient when students -- like DeRamus -- make mistakes, but that he won't tolerate bad behavior; simply stated, he acknowledges that DeRamus made a mistake, but punishes her anyway, as though she was purposefully defiant. Secondly, his opinion of inappropriate dress is out of line; while DeRamus's dress was short, it wasn't a miniskirt, and the top was just as cleavage-barring as most prom dresses on the market. Thirdly, having to change clothes or missing the prom should be "punishment" enough for students who violate the prom's dress code; no additional actions need be taken. And finally, the fact that corporal punishment was even an option (and a widely-chosen one at that!) is barbaric and archaic.

People like Principal Holloday shouldn't be educators, nor should the folks who canceled 18-year-old Constance McMillen's prom after she asked to wear a tuxedo and bring a same-sex date to the dance. What, exactly, are these adults afraid of? Are they so scared by the fact that Constance is a lesbian that they're willing to battle with the ACLU and deprive kids of a major rite of passage? Does principal Holloday enjoy being a bully or exerting his power? Randomly subjecting students to punitive actions doesn't teach them anything; it merely gives the impression that people in positions of power get to be bullies, creating and enforcing rules arbitrarily.

It would be nice if kids were allowed to be kids. Put basic safety rules in place and let kids go to the prom in tuxes or dresses and with whomever they choose. The world has bigger problems than whether two girls go to the dance together or whether a student arrives in a cleavage-baring gown. Only once educators start focusing on what's really important will they truly be impacting the character and moral fiber of their students.

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