"Prom-blems" Abound: A Primer

Prom season is upon us — along with a
slew of potential legal landmines. Below are best practices for navigating some
common issues.


There is no constitutional right to
attend prom. Attending prom is a privilege, subject to revocation for
noncompliance with reasonable conduct standards. School officials may not,
however, prohibit a student from attending prom based on any protected
classification (e.g., race, religion, or gender).


School officials must comply with the
reasonable suspicion standard to search a student. Any search must be justified
at its inception and reasonable in scope. Strip searching students is almost
never reason­able in scope and may result in the loss of a school offi­cial’s
qualified immunity, mean­ing that the school offi­cial may be held personally liable to the student for
money damages.

Breath Alcohol Tests

Administering a breath alcohol test to
a student is a search and must meet the standards described above. If a student
smells of alcohol or exhibits be­havior con­sistent with intoxication, a breath
alcohol test is justified and reasonable in scope. 

In contrast, a random, suspicionless
breath alcohol test triggers a different legal standard and should only be
administered consistent with a policy permitting such searches and after
advance written notice is pro­vided. We recommend including language directly
on prom tickets stating that students consent to random, suspicionless
searches, which may include a breath alcohol test, as a condition of entry into

A student who tests positive in a
breath alcohol test or who appears intoxicated may be excluded from prom. Be
sure, how­ever, that any student excluded from prom for alcohol consumption has
a safe ride home.


Schools may prohibit students from
using or possessing vape pens, Juuls, or other electronic nicotine delivery
system devices on school property or at school events, including prom. School officials should review
board policies and student handbooks to ensure that any prohibition against
smoking or the use of tobacco includes vaping products, vaping liquids, and
other such devices. School officials should notify students in writing that
such devices are prohibited at prom.

Dress Codes

Schools may impose dress codes at prom
to ensure that students wear proper attire. We recom­mend noti­fying students
of dress code requirements well in ad­vance of prom. Schools may not impose gen­der-specific dress codes
(e.g., female students must wear dresses; male students must wear tuxedos). Im­posing
gender-specific dress codes may result in a lawsuit alleging sex discrimination
based on a stu­dent’s failure to conform to gender stereotypes. In such cases,
the school rarely prevails.


Schools may regulate who a student may
bring as a date on a nondiscriminatory basis. For example, schools may prohibit
students from bringing dates who are currently suspended or expelled from
school or who are otherwise banned from school functions. Schools also may
adopt a policy about bringing dates from other schools. All policies must be
applied uniformly.

Trouble arises, however, when schools
refuse to permit same-sex dates. Case law has made clear that such restrictions
infringe on students’ First Amend­ment “association” rights and Title IX’s
prohibition against sex discrimination. Imposing such a policy invites media
scrutiny and legal action.

Dancing Style

Some schools have implemented rules
prohibiting certain types of dancing (e.g., “twerking” or “grinding”). Clear
and uniformly applied rules are generally permit­ted, although the possibility
exists that a student could challenge such dancing rules as violating his or
her First Amendment right to freedom of expression. Such a challenge has not
yet been heard by any court, and a successful challenge is unlikely if the
rules are reasonable, clear, and uniformly applied to all students.


Like all school policies, rules related
to prom must be applied in a uniform and nondiscriminatory man­ner. A
legitimate policy or rule can become the basis for a lawsuit if it is not applied
equally to all students. Simi­larly, policies that are discriminatory or vague
will invite legal challenge.

sure to remind students that prom is a school-sponsored event, regardless of
location, and that all school rules remain in effect during the dance. Con­sistent
reminders of expected conduct before the dance help minimize problems on the
big night.