Background Checks for Prom Dates

It was only a matter of time, right? The Boston Herald reported yesterday that high school officials have banned a student's 19-year-old date from attending prom because the latter has a prior marijuana conviction. Apparently, school officials at Dennis-Yarmouth Regional High School in Cape Cod relied upon a state background check system designed to identify ex-cons before they serve as academic volunteers with access to students. And at  least two young men, who were volunteering only for an evening of revelry with their girlfriends, got caught in the trap.

Not surprisingly, the young woman who is the subject of the Herald piece, and her mother, are ticked. They also are out about $500 for the prom dress, the limo and makeup. The ACLU, meanwhile, thinks the whole thing is illegal-- and you can just smell the coming lawsuit and request for an affirmative injunction. School officials aren't saying much. Local pols are taking sides on the issue.

But wait, it gets better. The Herald is reporting today that the principal of the school, Kenneth Jenks, now is being investigated by some entity called the Criminal History Systems Board to determine whether he has overzealously used the background checks beyond their intended purpose. And the Herald also says the school board is looking at its policy. You just can't make this stuff up, right? Just wait until the cable channels get a hold of this one. I can see the young woman and her mother now, sadly describing the dress she'll never get to wear.

The kerfluffle raises all sorts of legal issues. The student and her date arguably have first amendment rights to associate with whomever they please. The young man who was caught up in the background check arguably has a privacy right to be free from having this misdemeanor charge used against him for the rest of his life. And the school board ultimately would have to justify its use of the background checks, designed for other purposes remember, in these circumstances. If you want to perform background checks for prom dates, the argument will go, there ought to be specific authority to do so by state legislators and, even then, the whole scheme may be constitutional suspect.

In my day, and I suspect in yours, you didn't have to register your prom date. You could bring a friend, an ex-con, a former dictator of a third-world country, anyone. Meanwhile, in Cape Cod, I wonder how many drug testers they'll have near the punch.


By  |  May 10, 2006; 10:00 AM ET
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What privacy right? Convictions - unless sealed - are a matter of public record. The right of free association is not impaired - the girl can still associate with this young man any time she wants. She just can't do it at the prom.

Breaking the law has consequences. It should have consequences. Exclusion from a prom hardly constitutes using the conviction "against him for the rest of his life" - but does make sense given the problems schools have had with substance abuse associated with these events.

Posted by: Huh? | May 10, 2006 11:12 AM

Give me a break. Is this guy a convicted sex offender? What happened to serving your punishment and having a clean start? What's next? Illegal wiretaps? Oh, never mind.

Posted by: BigBrotherIsWatching | May 10, 2006 11:45 AM

Boys who've been ticketed for speeding should also be banned. Very dangerous to their dates.

Also, what about doing background checks on the limo driver?

Posted by: Jake | May 10, 2006 12:05 PM

Sounds like the Nanny society is getting a little overzealous again. This is akin to the zero drug tolerance horse hockey that does not allow a child to use saline nose spray at school since slightly salty water is a drug.

Backgrund checks into dates, every fathers fond wish, but if I can't do it, neither can he.

Posted by: Chet | May 10, 2006 12:57 PM

Registering dates from other schools and getting approval for them to attend dances is common practice in Northern Virginia. I had to do it as a student in the late 90s and the students where I teach do it now. As far as I know, the hosting school simply gets in touch with the guest's school to make sure the student is "in good standing" though I've never heard a full definition of that phrase.

While the girl may have the right to associate with whomever she wishes, the school has an obligation to do its best to provide a safe environment for an event it is sponsoring. Sure, this girl is crying now, but imagine the indignation and legal action if some guest were to cause trouble at a dance and the school had not done a basic check.

I'm sure the school and legal system will sort out the question of whether the school went overboard in its efforts, but the basic principle of checking out guests before allowing them to come to a school dance is already well-established.

Posted by: Jess | May 10, 2006 01:10 PM

I love the self-righteous and sanctamonius attitude of those who say if you break the law you pay the price. Gee, you can get convicted of DUI yet still become President.

This attitude reflects the view of breaking the law as a sin that never goes away. This attitude also reflects the belief that no punishment is too severe for any action deemed a crime. So let's make going 1 mile and hour over the speed limit a capital offense. Or taking $1 too many deductions on a tax return. Come on, Huh, would you support that?

If not, then the debate over this story is wide open and not closed because "breaking the law has consequences." De minimis non curat lex.

Posted by: George | May 10, 2006 01:11 PM

Well, CNN did have a mother, daughter on this morning. Apparently, the school wasn't open about the fact that they were going to do these background checks. I guess I am not too concerned about background checks for those attending events with minors, but there should be consent. Also, there should be clear rules so that someone convicted of sex crimes is not allowed to go whereas someone convicted of smoking a joint could go (or whatever line they chose to draw). Anyway, even though I am a radical liberal who is totally concerned with privacy, I guess I realize that in school you give up a certain level of privacy and I hope that school officials are doing this with good intentions.. Thanks and looking forward to this blog.

Posted by: Drew - Astoria, NY | May 10, 2006 01:13 PM

My daughters school is registering the guests that do not attend her school. When I asked the vice principal about the reasoning behind it, I was told it was so that they knew who was scheduled to be there in event of emergency. I'm sure it's also a way of knowing who to blame in event of a disturbance. As the school system barely has enough money for books, I certainly hope they are not spending anything on background checks!

Posted by: Sue | May 10, 2006 01:14 PM

But this isn't calling the student's school to see if they're in good standing. This is doing a criminal background check. This kid has a misdemeanor conviction for pot possession, for crying out loud. He's not a serial child molester. (And how many amongst us baby boomers/children of the 60s and 70s can honestly say we've never been in possession of marijuana in our younger days?)Personally, I agree with the previous comment -- the kids who have multiple speeding and other traffic violations are a far greater danger. Look, the only people in my mind who get a say in who their daughter dates is the parents.

Posted by: | May 10, 2006 01:15 PM

Perhaps you didn't have to register your date, but a number of kids have been (and continue to be) turned away for bringing a date of the "wrong" gender.

Posted by: Steve Boese | May 10, 2006 01:23 PM

This may seem trivial to some, but you have to understand that principals and other school officials are under a great deal of pressure to avoid liability. As society becomes more litigious, school districts are the target of frequent lawsuits alleging vicarious negliegnce.

The question is very simple: Does the school have a legitimate, rational reason for refusing entry of the young man. Answer: Yes, considering he has been convicted of a crime.

Speeding tickets/moving violations have nothing to do with it -- those are citations, not arrests, and don't involve drugs, a problem of particular sensitivity to schools.

Principals are rightly not concerned that "nothing will probably happen" -- their only focus is child safety, and those belittling and attacking them for it do a disservice to their communities.

Posted by: Geoff | May 10, 2006 01:27 PM

Privacy for a conviction? What sort of 'star chamber' world do you want to live in? A state court comes to a conclusion under the laws of a democratic goverment but somehow because it is a 'little crime' it shouldn't be part of the public record? That is the scariest concept put forward in this entire piece.

Posted by: Andrew | May 10, 2006 01:34 PM

When I was in high school this was not an issue. The prom was only for members of the senior class. Not outsiders. And no one complained and no one sued.

Posted by: Steve | May 10, 2006 01:37 PM

Way to go Mr. Jenks! Good intentions often cause great misconception. I hope that you will stay encouraged and continue to follow your own convictions. We need more action takers in our school systems... I'm not going to criticize the mother or the daughter, but I will say the mother needs to look at this incident from another angle before striking back!!!

Posted by: Carlos | May 10, 2006 01:44 PM

"Speeding tickets/moving violations have nothing to do with it -- those are citations, not arrests, and don't involve drugs, a problem of particular sensitivity to schools."

I readily admit it has been a while (15 years) since I was in high school, but in the years shortly before and after graduation we had a hell of a lot more kids die from car crashes (5, 2 involving alcohol, the other three just stupid driving) and suicide (2) than drugs (0).

The only reason drugs are of "particular sensitivity" to schools is because the driving doesn't take place at school and suicide generally doesn't.

Posted by: Left of the Pyle | May 10, 2006 02:05 PM

"This attitude reflects the view of breaking the law as a sin that never goes away."

Nope, not at all. If this kid keeps his nose clean, no one is going to care about the pot in ten or fifteen years - heck, he might even become president! But breaking the law is does matter, and we should not trivialize it. If you don't think that marijuana use matters, then fight to legalize it. But don't argue that we shouldn't care about a recent misdemeanor conviction (and either this kid isn't old enough for it to be anything other than recent, or he's way to old to be a prom date) just because you don't like the particular law involved.

Posted by: Huh? | May 10, 2006 02:09 PM

A young girl sobbing about the prom dress she will never wear certainly provides a salient image for the cable news shows. However, let's not forget that pot possession can have a much larger effect on young people than missing a dance. Under our current laws, one can have their financial aid for college pulled if arrested for possession. I personally find that much more serious (and frankly, absurd) than the thought that some kid getting barred from another school's prom.

Posted by: Zimbardo | May 10, 2006 02:12 PM

When I went to my prom in the mid-1980s, I brought a guy from another school. I did not have to tell anyone his name, or register him in any way (at a public high school in a Detroit suburb). Nor did I need to be cleared to attend the prom, or any other dances at his private high school across town.

I think the notion that the prom is only for members of the senior class who attend the school hosting the prom is a new one. In an era before mine, high school girls often brought their college boyfriends as prom dates. I doubt they had to register, either.

Are we then suggesting criminal background checks for all parents who volunteer their time to help at the prom, or any other school related event? Will we be excluding these individuals on the basis of felonies, or misdemeanors as well? What about checking to see if people have spent time in psychiatric institutions? Why not do criminal background checks on the family members of your child's friends? After all, your kid probably spends time at the friend's house. Wouldn't want them to come into contact with a drug user, a tax evader, a rapist, a mental patient, a speeding motorist, or any other threatening individual.

People need to get a grip. Parents should meet their kid's dates. Their kids and their dates are responsible for their own behavior. Or, isn't this a free society anymore?

Posted by: Thirtysomething | May 10, 2006 02:22 PM

"Are we then suggesting criminal background checks for all parents who volunteer their time to help at the prom, or any other school related event? Will we be excluding these individuals on the basis of felonies, or misdemeanors as well?"

I for one would have absolutely no problem with that. I teach a class for my local Parks and Recreation department, and they do in fact require a criminal background check (including fingerprinting) for anyone who will be teaching a class that might include kids. They also require up-to-date CPR and first aid certification. Am I offended? Absolutely not - these are completely reasonable requirements.

Posted by: Huh? | May 10, 2006 02:41 PM

"Speeding tickets/moving violations have nothing to do with it -- those are citations, not arrests, and don't involve drugs, a problem of particular sensitivity to schools."

Let's not forget that in many states and counties, citations ARE given for minor possession of marijuana and arrests can't be made unless a certain amount is found. In others, which Massachusetts appears to be one of, the opposite is true.

There was once a time in this country where we had things in perspective. Must every person be entirely free of minor blemishes and brief adolescent run-ins with our legal system to be considered a valuable and trustworthy American?

Posted by: Dumbfounded. | May 10, 2006 03:10 PM

There is a difference, I think, between a "minor blemish" [[as you put it] and proof sufficient for a conviction of drug possession.

And let's be perfectly clear, no person has a constitutional right to bring someone to the prom. And alarmist statements like "is this still a free society" don't really contribute to the debate either.

Posted by: Geoff | May 10, 2006 06:31 PM

There are some things not being said here.
1. Massachusetts is very restrictive on people's police records, there it is believed that penalty meted out in court is usually sufficient, with exceptions to sex offenders.
2. The school broke the law and misused the CORI searches. The law is clear on who and for what it is to be used for.
3. The arrests and convictions were Juvenile offences and are sealed from public view.
4. D-Y High School administrators have backed off and now will allow the dates in. They realized how this would play out in court and are trying to mitigate the damage. Http://

Posted by: Mark | May 10, 2006 11:41 PM

Why are the facts in the previous comment missing from the reporting?

Posted by: mikey | May 11, 2006 06:40 AM

Good post :). I was so sad when prom was over :(. I was lookin' hot though 'cause I used the tips on Prom Dresses HQ to pick out a rockin' dress. :D

Posted by: Lisa | August 29, 2006 06:50 PM

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