Ethical Educator

The Private Post-Prom Affair
School Administrator, August 2016

Scenario: A teacher and her husband hosted a post-prom gathering at their farm for their son and his date plus a handful of other prom couples. The number of participants grew larger than expected when uninvited guests turned up. When the teacher suspected alcohol use, she collected car keys, and she subsequently shut down the event when she witnessed a few students consuming beer. The teacher did not make a report to anyone in the school district until someone else divulged information several days later. Should action be taken against the teacher?

Sarah Jerome:
The teacher was right to shut down the event when she witnessed students consuming beer.  She was right to collect the car keys. Her next appropriate steps include informing the parents and the school district. If her failure to inform the school district was an act of innocent omission -- that is, she was ignorant of the school district's policies -- then no action should be taken against the teacher. A letter documenting the discussion with the teacher, specifying applicable board policy and informing her of appropriate and expected future actions would be sufficient. If, however, after meeting with the teacher, it is determined that she had been informed of the district expectations to inform the school district and that she deliberately ignored that expectation, then a letter of reprimand would be in order.

 This incident can serve as a catalyst for a school community conversation on prom and post-prom planning. Many districts have opted to host one supervised, school-sponsored post-prom event to avoid the dilemmas -- legal, personal, professional -- as described in this scenario.

The school district has a responsibility to inform the school community of its expectations for staff and parents.  Making sure all staff and parents know the applicable board policies regarding student behavior and consequences is critical.  Timely communication can be delivered in new teacher orientations, faculty meetings, PTA meetings, district websites and other digital media, automated calls to parents from the superintendent during prom week and articles in the local newspapers on safety first for students, especially during prom and graduation celebrations.  

Creating an environment where "safety first for students" becomes a school community goal is a worthy effort for school administrators.  Making the school and community partners in this endeavor can be life-saving.

Maggie Lopez:
Prom night can be a challenging time for students, parents and school staff. Planned, positive after-prom events have become a good opportunity for students to have a more  appropriate choice of activities following prom. This was a well-intentioned parent (who is also a teacher) who was attempting to offer a positive after-prom venue for her son and his friends. The teacher acted responsibly by collecting keys and ending the party when she observed alcohol use.  

It would have been prudent for the teacher to have informed the district (e.g. principal, central office) of the occurrence in the spirit of “no surprises.” Follow-up discussion with the teacher would be appropriate. Although this was a private event, it might be warranted for the district to follow up with students and parents (e.g., the athletes’ code of conduct/expectations ). If there is policy specific to staff role in the occurrence of such events, it would be important to ensure all staff members are informed on the policy.

Shelley Berman:
This situation is particularly challenging because the host of the party viewed herself in the role of a parent, while most of the attendees, their families, and the community see her primarily as a teacher. Depending upon the state’s social hosting laws, she and her husband could have been held liable had a student been injured as a result of alcohol use at the party.

Given the small number of invitees, the teacher’s first mistake was allowing intruders to enter and remain at the party. The intruding students acted irresponsibly and disrupted an otherwise positive event, prompting the teacher to take action. She did well to collect students’ car keys and end the event.

I assume that she called all of the students’ parents to pick up their own children and that she informed the parents of those students observed consuming alcohol so they could address the matter individually. Because she controlled the situation, she may have deemed police intervention as unnecessary, instead allowing parents to pursue appropriate discipline of their children.

However, her decision to treat the occasion as a private and non-school event to be handled by parents, without informing the school or police, did not take into account the public nature of her position. Even before the age of social media, such incidents have always been shared among students and parents. That disclosure could compromise her professional reputation and come to the attention of the school administration.

By proactively informing the administration, she could have prevented the principal from being blindsided and enabled the principal to quell rumors, correct misinformation and diffuse criticism of the teacher. In addition, if the students involved in drinking were underage, athletes, or involved in activities in which they had made a commitment to refrain from drinking, it was her obligation to report these students to the administration, if not the police.

The district is not liable because the teacher was not acting within the scope of her employment. However, at a minimum, the teacher should have immediately reported the incident to the principal. Depending on the teacher’s past performance, this episode may or may not merit discipline. Either way, the principal should make it clear to the teacher that she must proactively inform the administration of any incident involving students and alcohol and that it is her obligation to report those students she observed drinking.

Mario Ventura:
Educators employed in the same district their children attend can be put in difficult situations when engaging in social activities that involve their children’s friends such as the incident described in this scenario. Having an after-prom gathering at the teacher’s home created potential risk for the teacher. The risk should have been considered before having the students at her home.

Some things to consider: Is there potential harm to students or former students? Could something happen that could create distrust and impact her reputation in the community? Is there a possibility of a negative mark on one’s educational career?
A professional educator has an obligation to ensure the safety of students. Also, state departments of education and school boards regulate teacher conduct. In this situation, stronger supervision and clear boundaries should have been established and maintained. The teacher had an ethical and possibly a legal obligation to notify her administrator and the parents of the students that attended the gathering whether or not they were invited.  

The district has a legal and ethical obligation to investigate this matter. In addition, the parents of the students that attended the gathering should be notified to ensure they understand this gathering was not a district sponsored event and under-age consumption of alcohol occurred at the event. It may be possible the teacher violated board policy and state law. Disciplinary action should be taken if it is determined a violation of state law and/or district policy occurred.     

Each month, School Administrator draws on actual circumstances to raise an ethical decision-making dilemma in K-12 education. Our distinguished panelists provide their own resolutions to each dilemma. Do you have a suggestion for a dilemma to be considered? Send it to:

The Ethical Educator panel consists of Shelley Berman, superintendent, Andover, Mass.; Sarah Jerome, a retired superintendent in Arlington Heights, Ill., and an AASA past president; Maggie Lopez, a retired superintendent in Pueblo, Colo.; and Mario Ventura, superintendent, Isaac School District, Phoenix, Ariz.