Kill-Joy Principal’s Promposal Ban Crosses a Legal Line
Students have had to fight for their right to party after administrators tried to control their behavior away from the school.
Promposals aren't yet in the Oxford English Dictionary yet, but that hasn't stopped teenagers in love from prom-inently posting these romantic overtures by the hundreds of thousands on social media and classmates' cellphones.
But these "Bachelor”-like playlets are tying school officials in knots. The extravagant skits are prom-pted by a school-sponsored event yet evade disciplinary rules, especially when held off-campus. Parents complain about expense and the hurt feelings of those left out but what’s a harried principal to do when kids just wanna have fun?
Recent action by one New York City principal, as reported by Susan Edelman in the New York Post, shows the limits of school officials' power to contain Prom-eos’ and Juliets’ high spirits. Queens Gateway for the Health Sciences Principal Judy Henry ordered that "there is [sic] absolutely no promposals to be conducted anywhere in the school or even around the school and that includes anywhere on your way to school or on your way home from school." The city Department of Education backed her up, because "some students felt uncomfortable and left out."
The Supreme Court has famously stated that students don't "shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate." The same goes for freedom of association, another important personal right schools should model rather than scorn.
While schools can bar activity that substantially disrupts or threatens their mission, the long arm of the principal doesn't extend to off-campus behavior unless it has the same effect. Henry's removal of one promposal participant from her Student Council vice-presidency thus went too far—and was ultimately withdrawn—as did threats of other disciplinary action that could hurt chances for future opportunities like college acceptances, an important liberty interest worthy of constitutional protection according to the court.
The better course would be for Henry and school officials across the country to ask, don't tell.
When fund-raising "I ♥ Boobies" bracelets for breast cancer awareness were worn by pubescent boys for other than scientific reasons, leading to school bans, the prohibitions were struck down since, like off-campus promposals, the speech was protected and insufficiently disruptive. On the other hand, a recurring middle school fad—wearing color-coded jelly bracelets that supposedly indicated what sexual activities the wearer would engage in—was met in 2009 with a request from a Colorado principal for parents not to allow their children to wear them to school. The request was widely interpreted as a ban, but fell within legal bounds.
Hurt feelings are similar. We would like to live in a world where there are no popularity contests. Middle and high schools are cauldrons of social anxiety, often tied to sex. But trying to control one stressor—promposals—out of infinite opportunities for offense distracts from the real solution: better social and emotional education.
Promposals are cute. Viewing them generally brings sympathetic tears, not anger. Principals should take a moment to celebrate their students' exuberance instead of clamping down on self-expression. Handled appropriately, they are an opportunities to teach legal and social boundaries rather than to restrict behavior that is developmentally appropriate, even when institutionally problematic. Teaching kids to consider peers' feelings and parents' pocketbooks are important life lessons, better addressed with an outstretched hand than a smack down.