For many students at Oakland Catholic High School, prom night is something they'll never forget ... if only because they may not attend it in the first place.
Students at the all-girls Catholic high school have long bemoaned the strict rules at the yearly formal dance, which they say are excessive even for a religious-school function. School officials must pre-approve prom dresses, judging whether they are too short, too low-cut or expose too much of a student's back. Then there's the dance-floor policing.
"If you were [dancing] too close to anyone, they'd tell you to leave room for the Holy Spirit," says Lexy Orriola, 18, of Forest Hills, who graduated from Oakland Catholic last year. The punishment for such an infraction? "They put you in a corner," for a timeout.
For the past four years, students have held an alternative event, originally dubbed "anti-prom." Though the formal dance was supervised by parents, "It was way more fun," says Orriola, who attended in her junior year. "There was supervision, but no one was telling anyone to go in the corner."
But Oakland Catholic officials are sending a warning: Attend anti-prom, and you may be risking your chance at getting into the college of your choice. School officials recently announced that teachers may rescind college letters of recommendation for any student who attends the non-sanctioned event ... or who complains about the official prom on Facebook and other social-networking sites.
"It's just a threat," says an Oakland Catholic senior helping to organize this year's anti-prom. "It's just meant to scare people."
The student, like others who spoke to City Paper, asked to remain anonymous, for fear of reprisal.
Oakland Catholic, located on North Craig Street, serves about 600 female students, whose families pay roughly $10,000 a year for them to attend. Its mission is to teach "young women to lead lives of faith, courage and commitment as they lay the foundation for their future as responsible and respected global leaders."
School officials say that is why they supervise the prom so strictly.
Students "know our expectations," says Maureen Marsteller, the school's principal. And they are required to conduct themselves with decorum, both in class and at school functions.
Not surprisingly, officials frowned on "anti-prom" when it was first launched in 2008, by students and parents fed up with the stringent rules at the school dance. Since anti-prom's inception, school administrators have discouraged attendance, sending letters to parents criticizing the dance as a non-sanctioned event not in line with the school's values. Some students say they've heard of officials threatening to punish girls who attend the anti-prom by not allowing them to walk at graduation, though City Paper was not able to verify that claim.
There's little question that "anti-prom" — which this year has been renamed "Party of the Year" in an effort to appease school officials — has put a dent in attendance at the official gathering. Marsteller declined to say how anti-prom has impacted turnout for the school's official event. But the school has previously noted that in 2008, just before the alternative prom was created, the official prom drew more than 100 couples. That number dropped to fewer than 20 couples in the anti-prom's inaugural year, though the school claims attendance has rebounded somewhat since then.
Marsteller denies that students have ever been threatened for attending the dance. "I think you have a lot of misinformation," she says. Students "have embellished quite a bit."
But this year, the school is taking a more public step in its effort to dissuade attendance at anti-prom.
On Feb. 16, it posted a release under the "General News" section of the school's website. Headlined "Promoting a Positive Prom," the release announced that "Oakland Catholic High School faculty and administrators have joined forces to defeat the anti-prom."
Their battle plan involves a new disciplinary option for teachers. "If a student requests a letter of recommendation ... that student may first be required to sign a memorandum of understanding," the statement reads. "The memorandum requests that the student ... support the school by not attending the anti-prom, by not slandering the school on a social network site, and by not participating in cheating or plagiarism." The statement adds that the policy was "unanimously embraced" by faculty.
Marsteller says the new policy isn't a threat at all, but "a choice of the teachers" to help ensure students make decisions in line with the values of their school.
Some parents sympathize with that position.
Linda King, 50, of Munhall, allowed her daughter to attend the alternative prom in 2009, even though she didn't like the idea of the non-sanctioned dance. Leading up to anti-prom that year, she recalls receiving a letter from Oakland Catholic in the mail, notifying parents that anti-prom was not a school-sanctioned dance.
In addition, she says, the letter emphasized that complaints against the official prom were misguided. The letter's message, she recalls, was: "This is why you're sending your girls here — for the discipline."
"I understand Oakland's point of view. ... You chose to send your child there," King says. And while she refers to the new policies as "scare tactics," which may "seem harsh," she says it wouldn't bother her if the prom alternative were scrapped.
Some students, not surprisingly, see things differently.
"People think anti-[prom] is an open house party with people doing keg stands," says the senior planning this year's event. "[Administrators] say we do it for drinking, sex and drugs."
Not true, she says. The event "is like a public-school prom," complete with adult and police supervision.
Says alumna Orriola of the new policy: "This is out of control."
The school's tactics are already making an impact.
Organizers of this year's anti-prom — being held at a facility in the South Side — have scheduled the prom for May 25, two days after graduation. That way, students can't be kept from attending graduation if they attend. The event is also being opened to students from other area schools, so the prom doesn't appear to be so anti-Oakland Catholic. Organizers are also forbidding students from calling the dance "anti-prom."
Students bridle at the need for such measures. But they're still predicting a better turnout than Oakland Catholic's official event, which will be held May 4 at the Heinz History Center.
"No one's going to end up going" to the school's sanctioned prom, says the senior organizing the alternative event. "They treat kids like they're in kindergarten."