Luigi Moneta remembers his senior prom as fairly tame. “It was a gathering of friends together to say goodbye,” he recalls. There were no wild after-prom parties devoid of adult supervision, no alcohol consumption in Hummer H2 limos, no “booze cruise” sponsored by parents.
A letter this March from Kellenberg Memorial High School in Uniondale, N.Y., told him that it's a different story for his son, a Kellenberg senior. The letter, sent by Kellenberg's principal, Marianist Brother Kenneth Hoagland, and signed by 10 other school administrators, detailed a days-long celebration of debauchery and promiscuity that costs thousands of dollars.
“What started out as a formal senior dance has become a recreational institution that has taken a life of its own,” the letter read. “It has expanded in time and money, but more importantly, it has taken on a sophistication that is far from what is expected in a Christian educational institution.”
Brother Hoagland wrote the letter after discovering that a group of students had leased a house in the Hamptons for the after-prom hours. What bothered him wasn't just the price of $20,000 for 36 hours, which he called “outrageous,” but the fact that there would be no adult supervision and that many of the students were underage.
Those factors put the Marianist-owned school in a dangerous position of legal liability, so in the letter Brother Hoagland announced that the school was eschewing any responsibility for post-prom activities.
Nothing changed. Students still spent thousands of dollars on dresses, tuxes, limos and after-prom parties. Parents still rented homes in the Hamptons. Brother Hoagland heard the same stories about sexual laxity and parental indulgence.
So this school year, Kellenberg canceled the prom altogether for the 489 seniors.
Moneta, for one, is glad.
“I didn't know stuff like that was going on, and I was glad they were taking action on it,” he said. “That's not why I send my kid to Kellenberg.”
A September letter, written in response to a parent who noticed that the school calendar lacked a date for the senior prom, elaborated on the problems mentioned in the first one.
Among them were pre-prom cocktail parties hosted by parents that commence the “three day drug/sex/alcohol bash,” parents making motel reservations or engaging “booze cruises” for their children and the general flaunting of affluence in the Long Island area.
“Each year it gets worse — becomes more exaggerated, more expensive, more emotionally traumatic,” wrote Brother Hoagland of the prom. “It would not have gotten this far if a significant portion of parents, either implicitly or tacitly, did not accept it or tolerate it. We are withdrawing from the battle and allowing parents full responsibility. KMHS is willing to sponsor a prom, but not an orgy.”
Senior Chris Laine and his friends once totaled up what their classmates must spend on all the prom “necessities”: limos (usually Hummer H2s or Cadillac Escalades), tuxes, dresses, alcohol, tickets to comedy clubs and payments for rental homes. They arrived at a figure of $1.9 million. And it's not worth it, he said.
“Anyone who's gone before will tell you that it's overrated and it's all about the after-prom,” says Laine, who attended last year's prom and believes that the after-prom activities render the actual dance unnecessary.
Of this year's cancellation he says, “It's certainly unfortunate and we're all disappointed, but you can't argue with the facts.”
Not everyone has the same opinion. “A lot of my friends are really pretty angry about it,” says senior Kate Breen. “It's not the after-prom stuff that's important. Most girls just want to have the experience of going out and getting a dress and getting ready for it.”
Still, she said she understands why the principal had to cancel the event. She only wishes there had been more discussion and perhaps some sort of compromise before the decision was made.
Brother Hoagland brought up the issue of compromise in his September letter, asking, “What is there to compromise? Sanity, proportion, modesty, common sense?”
He's not immune to the students’ desire for a memorable senior-year experience, and points out that the senior class has a four-day trip to Disney World planned for the spring.
But the root problem, he says, is affluence and how the culture of Long Island encourages decadence — a lifestyle antithetical to that promoted by Christian education. He uses Jesus’ example of the rich man trying to enter heaven and singles out prom as the apex of decadence for students — “the occasion of conspicuous consumption,” he calls it.
“The current culture of the prom on Long Island,” he says, “does not represent to us a proper Christian use of wealth.”
Kellenberg parent Bob Morris knew prom night was expensive, but he didn't know just how expensive.
“I had no idea people were throwing around that kind of money,” he told the Register. “I think it's a very positive thing that Brother Kenneth did this. I chose Catholic education for a reason, and I know from being an involved parent at Kellenberg that Brother Kenneth and the staff have our children's best interest in mind.”
Morris said his son was “not at all disappointed” with the prom cancellation.
Most parents and students, Brother Hoagland says, have been supportive.
“What particularly surprised me was a father who thanked me because he said he was a father under pressure from his student to support everything that went on with prom,” he adds. “Not only were the students under pressure, but some of the parents were feeling that way, too.”
Based on correspondence from around the world, Brother Hoagland said he knows prom-fueled excess isn't just an issue at Kellenberg. Administrators everywhere struggle with similar problems.
Which is one good reason why he wrote the letter, says Moneta.
“Part of his motivation, I think, was to open the eyes of not just parents but the eyes of the nation to what was going on, and to start talking about what we could do to change it.”
Dana Lorelle writes from Cary, North Carolina.