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School dampers prom night for one couple

Wesley and Amber have dated for 7 1/2 months. Wesley's a freshman, so Gibbs High School says they can't go to prom.

By LENNIE BENNETT

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 16, 2001


ST. PETERSBURG -- Prom night. The words evoke images of youthful revelry, of fresh-faced teens in formal attire celebrating the end of a school year. High school proms are transpiring during these last weekends of school, and hundreds of local teens are participating. Two will not.

Wesley Hall, 14, and Amber Romel, 17, students at Pinellas County Center for the Arts at Gibbs High School, had planned to attend their school's prom together Saturday at the Renaissance Vinoy Resort. But they were told that because of Hall's age and grade level -- he is a freshman -- he cannot, even though a memo sent to students said that a special waiver would be considered if an underclassman was "seriously dating" a junior or senior student.

"We've been going out 71/2 months now," Hall said. "It's a strong and caring relationship."

Pinellas schools do not have a countywide policy concerning freshmen and sophomore students attending junior and senior proms, letting each school establish its own rules. Most high schools do not allow it. At St. Petersburg High School, for example, no exceptions are made for younger students, principal Linda Benware said.

But a memo given to Gibbs students stated that "juniors and seniors who have been seriously dating freshmen or sophomores for six months or more may write to Mrs. Shorter for a special waiver."

Romel wrote a request to Gibbs principal Barbara Shorter and said she heard nothing for a month. In the interim, she bought a prom dress. She said she wrote a second note a week ago "and was called down that day. I told Mrs. Shorter about the memo and she said 'What memo?' She told me no."

At that point the parents stepped in.

"I think she was being rude," Rick Hall, Wesley's father said of Shorter. "She didn't give the kids the opportunity to understand the reasoning. When I went to see her, she wouldn't talk to me."

Debra Wylie, Amber's legal guardian, said she, too, was frustrated by the way the situation was handled.

"I understand where they're coming from," Mrs. Wylie said. "But the paperwork sent home stated that juniors could take freshmen. She was told she couldn't because she was a junior. And they were very unresponsive."

Shorter said, "We have made some exceptions if it's a senior. That memo may say Mrs. Shorter on it, but it did not state our policy." She declined to comment further.

Wesley and Amber both say they know they will have other opportunities to attend the prom.

"I can go another time," Wesley said. "But the way it was handled, first to say I could in writing and then to be told 'No' without an explanation."

Rick Hall has made dinner reservations for the young couple at the Vinoy.

"We're going to get dressed in our prom clothes and my uncle is probably going to drive us in his Town Car since we won't be going with friends in a limo," Wesley said. "Maybe we'll meet them for breakfast after the prom."

- Times researcher Cathy Wos contributed to this report.

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