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Still the Big Night? : Security Checks, Breathalyzers--the Prom, ’92-Style

TIMES STAFF WRITER

As senior Karen Yonemoto, elegant in white satin and lace, entered the Alhambra High prom, off-duty police searched her purse and patted down her date.

After dinner, Yonemoto wanted to leave the hotel ballroom to buy batteries for her camera. But officers told her that if she left the basement for the lobby, she couldn’t return. A teacher finally bought the batteries for her.

Yonemoto, the homecoming queen and a member of the student executive board, seemed an unlikely troublemaker.

Yet like 750 other students, she was subjected to a rigorous security program developed by school officials to keep the recent dinner-dance free of alcohol and weapons. Six off-duty police, four campus security officers and 40 chaperons helped carry out the plan.

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Welcome to senior proms, 1992-style.

Concerned by alcohol-related driving accidents and by the spread of AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases, many Southern California schools have created an arsenal of rules designed to protect students--at least until the dance ends around midnight.

If problems occur, they’re usually at after-prom events outside the school’s jurisdiction, educators and students say. As a result, each year many schools urge students to avoid unsupervised activities, whether they involve renting hotel rooms or partying elsewhere.

While the majority of students follow the rules, each year a few adroitly attempt to break them.

* One Venice High senior sent herself a phony invitation to an all-girl after-prom party this spring so her parents would let her stay out all night. Her plan: After the prom, she would go to a hotel room with friends.

* A boy brought a cane to one recent prom for Quartz Hill High School in Antelope Valley. “Everybody assumed it was a solid piece of wood,” says teacher Gene Molino, a junior class adviser. “But it was hollow.” The cane was filled with liquor, which a chaperon caught the boy trying to mix with soda. “Guess what?” Molino says. “We check canes now.”

* Students at Hart High in Newhall reserved 29 rooms at a Westwood hotel this spring, saying they were for “a school activity.” The hotel called Principal Laurence Strauss to confirm the reservation. It seems the students were planning an after-prom party. “I called the parents,” Strauss says. “We discussed it. And I heard that the hotel canceled the reservations.”

Sex, drinking and, increasingly, after-hours partying have long been associated with prom night revelry. But as students’ ingenuity or audacity grows, so do officials’ attempts to keep things under control.

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* To help prevent drinking, some high schools--including Hart, Antelope Valley and Quartz Hill--require students to take chartered buses from the campus to the prom and back.

“That eliminates drunk drivers,” says Antelope Valley teacher Ken May, adviser to the junior class. “They don’t have to drive back and forth. If they did, they’d have access to liquor.”

* At this year’s prom, Marina High in Huntington Beach asked 12 students who arrived by private bus to take a Breathalyzer test. The devices were also present at the Mission Viejo and Santa Paula Union high school proms but weren’t used because no one appeared tipsy, administrators said.

“We stated in information we gave to the kids that there would be no drinking and that there would be a Breathalyzer present,” says Frances Meek, assistant principal at Santa Paula Union. “If it’s a deterrent, that’s absolutely wonderful. We really don’t want to catch them (drunk). We just don’t want them drinking.”

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Many schools require anyone found drunk to leave the dance. Educators call parents to come pick up the inebriated--and embarrassed--students. Some schools also suspend offenders.

“In our district, if you’re using or in possession of alcohol or an illegal substance at any school event, you must transfer to another school for the equivalent of a semester,” says Dennis Evans, principal of Newport Harbor High.

Acombination of tougher security and students’ common sense seems to be working--at least at the proms themselves. Students and educators say they seldom see drinking or drugs.

“I find Manual Arts proms very traditional,” says Sharon Dewees, an assistant principal. “When kids put on their finery here, they have always behaved in like manner. I have been here six years and I cannot even recall an incident that could have deterred from the event.”

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“These kids are not dumb,” says Ben Murillo, assistant principal at California High in Whittier. “They’re not going to be intoxicated or bring anything visible containing alcohol to the event. They’ve spent a lot of money for tuxedos, dresses, limousines, flowers and their ticket. If they’re going to do something, it’s going to be after they leave.”

Under normal circumstances, California innkeepers cannot legally refuse to rent to minors. But hotels can “probably” refuse to rent if they believe a group of unaccompanied minors will use the room for a party, says the California Hotel & Motel Assn., a trade group.

Last spring, a post-prom party in an Anaheim hotel room ended tragically when a Crescenta Valley High School basketball star was shot to death. A 19-year-old high school dropout was convicted of second-degree murder.

Nevertheless, renting rooms remains a common practice this spring. Students from Alhambra and San Gabriel high schools in the east to Venice and University in the west say they reserved rooms to celebrate after the prom.

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Some of the most elaborate and extended partying occurred after the University High dance at the Sheraton Universal in mid-May.

Security was tight. Hotel staff roamed the corridors asking to see students’ room keys. Young people without keys were told to go home.

Yet 11 friends filtered past the inspections into a crowded room, rented by Senior Class President Joel Angeles.

As the students talked quietly, some drank wine from plastic cups. Two girls said they were abstaining to serve as designated drivers.

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Angeles, 18, says he rented the room with his parents’ consent.

“I wanted him to be in one place and driving as little as possible,” says Joel’s father, Isiais Angeles. “Usually, they bring beer or something. . . . I’ve been talking to him about relationships and being responsible, and I didn’t see any problem. I have another kid. . . . He’s not the same as Joel. I probably wouldn’t allow him to do the same thing. It all depends on the person.”

Joel Angeles says he told his father that his friends know enough not to drink and drive. And if students want to have sex, he adds, they’ll find a way with or without a hotel.

“Just because there’s a bed, that doesn’t mean you’re going to use it. I think we’re aware of what parents instilled in us. It ruins your reputation to do those things in front of your friends. . . . And I don’t see why the school is so concerned with hotels if they are distributing condoms.”

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For many students, the hotel room is only the beginning. The next stage is a party at a home or a private club.

About 400 University students attended a private party from 2:30 to 7 a.m. at the Palace night club in Hollywood. The $45-a-ticket event, arranged by students, featured nonstop dancing amid strobes, lasers and other special-effects lighting. Alcohol was not allowed.

“This is a place that the prom can continue and students can stay together,” says senior Brooke Holley, 18. “It lends itself more to a party because it’s not supervised by the school and you don’t see your teachers here. It’s legal, but you don’t have restrictions put on you.”

Principal Jack S. Moscowitz says after-prom parties, although not sanctioned by the school, are “fairly traditional.”

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“I have mixed emotions about them,” he says. “I think it’s fine that students participate in what generally is a well-organized activity where the organizers take into consideration the safety (and) the alcohol concerns that society has.

“On the other hand . . . any time young people are out in the wee hours of the morning, the potential for problems exist.”

Those problems can start in several situations, educators say.

“The things that would concern us are the renting of limousines where several couples go together and inside the limo they have alcohol,” says Terry Lawton, the drug, alcohol and tobacco education site coordinator at San Gabriel High School. Although some limousines furnish alcohol, it’s against the law for anyone under 21 to drink inside the vehicle.

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“Another concern is renting hotel rooms before and after the prom,” Lawton says. “It’s obvious there is the potential for alcohol . . . because we have no supervision. We’re also concerned about the incidence of AIDS and HIV and the sex factor.

“We know one of six people turning up with AIDS (is) in the 20-29 age group. If you take into account the incubation period, there is a good chance they contracted the virus during their teen years.”

This year, the violence after the verdicts in the Rodney King case caused other safety worries. Several proms that weekend were rescheduled.

Schools begin explaining prom rules and guidelines long before the event.

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Many schools require students to list their dates’ names while buying tickets. Anyone who’s been suspended or expelled from school is not allowed to attend.

Students often receive a packet of rules for the event with their tickets and are asked to take them home to parents. The rules state that alcohol will be barred and spell out consequences of a violation.

At some schools, student clubs promote prom safety; at others, the California Highway Patrol runs programs urging sober proms and graduations.

Do Breathalyzers and security searches take the romance out of the senior prom? Maybe, but perhaps as a sign of changing times, many students accept the rules.

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“I thought it was great that they searched us coming into the dance,” says Yonemoto of Alhambra High. “I had nothing to hide, and I felt more secure with the people I was with and the people around me.”


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