POTSDAM — With the new school year starting next week, high school administrators at Potsdam High School have taken steps to ensure they don’t encounter the same problems involving sexually provocative dancing that they encountered last year.
High school Principal Joann Chambers spoke of the new policy Tuesday in light of news that administrators at Watertown High School were had considered canceling school dances in response to a situation similar to what Potsdam dealt with last year.
However, there will be no need to call in Kevin Bacon or the gang from “Footloose” thanks to three Watertown High School seniors who stepped up to work with school administrators to save the Homecoming Dance and Christmas Ball.
Administrators were planning to discuss canceling the dances because of a twerking problem at the Christmas Ball last year.
“I am happy to hear that the students in Watertown have developed a plan that will allow the dances there to continue. Traditions like the Homecoming Dance, Winter Ball, and prom are an important part of the fabric of the high school experience,” Mrs. Chambers said.
“However, I do empathize with the administration in Watertown as they grapple with how to balance the need for student autonomy and fun with the need to enforce school rules and uphold community values.”
Watertown City School District officials announced Tuesday, four days after Superintendent Terry N. Fralick said district officials considered canceling school dances because of inappropriate dancing, that a student-created plan of action to discourage highly sexualized dancing will be implemented and the dances will go on as they have in past years.
Community members compared the potential move by the Board of Education to the 1984 movie “Footloose,” about a minister who led a townwide ban on dancing that led to a youthful rebellion.
Mr. Fralick said he and high school Principal Leslie E. Atkinson met Monday with three student representatives who had approached them about allowing their school dances to go on as planned. The students presented a plan of action that would include a ban on sexually provocative dancing, an increase in the number of chaperones and an understanding that students found in violation will be subject to exclusion from future dances.
“We, too, have had students express their discomfort, and it was getting more and more difficult to find chaperones willing to attend the dances at Potsdam High School,” Mrs. Chambers said.
“We went through some difficult times as we tried to help our students understand that we were not being unreasonable.”
Heading into this year, Mrs. Chambers said she’s not expecting the issue to arise again this year, noting the district now has a clear policy in place to address twerking and other provocative forms of dance.
“In the end, we found the solution to be two-pronged,” she said. “First, we realized that music selection greatly influenced the style of dance. As popular music has changed and evolved, the way our students dance has naturally changed as well.
“Second, like Watertown High School, we have established reasonable guidelines that are enforced by chaperones. The simplest guideline is that dance partners must be facing each other, rather than dancing back to front. With our Homecoming Dance slated for early October, I expect these guidelines will result in dances that are easier for the adults to supervise while still allowing our students to have a great time,” she said.
Watertown’s board of education began discussing the problems at school dances last spring after students and chaperones complained about highly suggestive dancing at the Christmas Ball. Mr. Fralick said the board was going to discuss canceling the Homecoming Dance and the Christmas Ball but the prom was never in danger of being canceled.
Student Council President Matthew S. Mabee, senior class Treasurer Chloe C. Charles, and senior class Vice President Joseph J. Freda said they reached out to Mrs. Atkinson on Friday after news broke that administrators planned to discuss canceling the dances. Mr. Mabee said his Facebook news feed “blew up” and he and his classmates wanted to find out what they could do to save the dances.
“She said we had to devise a plan and guidelines that would create a safe and comfortable environment for teachers and students alike,” Mr. Mabee said.
On Monday, the students presented their list of proposed guidelines to school administrators. He said they discussed the basic rules, including that all clothing meet school dress code requirements and that drugs and alcohol be banned. But the biggest change was a ban on all inappropriate dancing.
“I love homecoming. I knew if that got taken away a lot of people would be devastated,” Ms. Charles said.
The students said they wanted to “meet in the middle” with school administrators and come up with a solution to save the dances. Mr. Fredo said they also wanted to save the dances because they are a major fundraiser for the senior prom and senior class trip.
“Basically, if any of that behavior is going on, you’ll probably be kicked out,” Mr. Mabee said.
He said they suggested that if chaperones see any kids “grinding” or dancing inappropriately, the dance would come to a stop, the lights would be turned on and a verbal warning will be given to all students. After the first warning, a student could be given a personal warning by a chaperone. Any subsequent transaction will result in the student or students being removed.
“We’re seniors. We want to have those experiences and memories to look back on when we leave and go to college,” Mr. Mabee said. “We also want the freshman students with four years to go in high school to go have these experiences, but we also want them to have safer experiences.”
Ms. Charles said there will be a transition from how dances have been for years to “bringing it back” to nicer and more appropriate dances for high school students.
“I feel it will be hard to transition from what we know to something different, but it will make a difference if everyone has an open mind,” Ms. Charles said.
She said students will still get to do all the things they like, such as taking pictures with their friends, getting dressed up and dancing to music they like. She said the new rules aren’t a punishment and the dances will still be fun.
Students will be educated about the new guidelines through the morning announcements and the student newspaper. Miss Charles said guidelines also will be printed on the back of dance tickets.
“The guidelines were suggested by the students. They’re the ones who came up with the plan,” Mr. Fralick said. “I’m really impressed with their student leadership.”
At the Board of Education meeting Tuesday, school board members said they were proud of the three students who came to the school with a plan to resolve the issue.
Mr. Fralick said he was proud of the students for taking the initiative to reach out to administrators and to come up with a possible solution.
Board member Peter E. Monaco said he thinks at the beginning of the year students should be given the new regulations to look over and sign a statement agreeing to the behavioral requirements to prove they are aware of the rule change.
Board member Yvonne E. Gebo said at least by having the issue come to light, the parents are aware that there is a behavioral problem at the school dances. She said maybe the seriousness behind why teachers don’t want to chaperone the dance will start a conversation within the families before the dancing comes to school.
Mrs. Atkinson said parents are allowed to chaperone school dances, but it is usually a problem of “the students allowing their parents to chaperone.”
Mrs. Gebo said most of the students are following the rules, but she hopes the small minority of students dancing provocatively will follow the rules now that the severity of the issue and the worst-case scenario if the problem isn’t resolved has come to light.
Mr. Fralick said before dances, the chaperones and teachers will hold a meeting to discuss exactly what is expected of them to ensure everyone is clear on what is inappropriate behavior.
“It has been a difficult time to get this resolved, but the bottom line I think we have a really good plan,” Mr. Fralick said. “It was never our intent to cancel or ban dances. It was more about trying to work out a solution to the problem.”
Staff Writer Benny Fairchild contributed to this report.