'Let James Tate go to the prom' crusade gains a Connecticut legislator

After high school senior James Tate got himself banned from prom for his dangerous (and dashing) prom invitation, public outcry flooded social networks and reached a politician's ears.

Autumn Driscoll / The Connecticut Post / AP
Seniors Sonali Rodrigues and James Tate stand outside Shelton High School in Shelton, Conn. Tate asked Rodrigues to the prom by taping an invitation in big cardboard letters in the side of the school.

Romantic gesture or dangerous stunt? It’s all in the eye of the beholder.

To high school senior James Tate and the friends who helped him, taping giant letters high up on the exterior wall of Shelton High School in Connecticut was a creative way to spell out an invitation to the prom.

To Headmaster Beth Smith, it was a case of trespassing that put the students at risk of hurting themselves, punishable by an in-school suspension. And because of a longstanding school policy, suspensions after April 1 come with a particular sting: No prom.

Sonali Rodrigues said yes to Mr. Tate’s invitation, taped up Friday, May 6. But her plans for the June 4 prom are still up in the air because of the drama that has ensued.

Tate’s pleas for an alternative punishment, such as community service, have not swayed the headmaster.

On Thursday afternoon, Ms. Smith made a brief statement to reporters, standing by the school policy: The rule “is reinforced over the course of the spring by daily PA system reminders, posted signage in common areas of the building and classrooms, as well as informational letters and automated phone messages to parents,” she said, according to GreenwichTime.com. “These communications are intended to remind our students and parents of the high school expectations and consequences. This unfortunate situation is a result of one of those consequences.”

The hundreds of thousands of people who have rallied around his cause since the news spread online this week say the punishment is unfairly harsh, not to mention ironic. But some educators say the popular reaction doesn’t take into account the tough job school administrators face in trying to consistently enforce rules.

When special events are approaching, he says, principals often remind students of the consequences of problematic behavior, “so they won’t make bad decisions,” says Mel Riddile, associate director for high school services at the National Association of Secondary School Principals in Reston, Va.

No principal wants to have to ban a student from prom or graduation, but “if you back down, then you get accused of being inconsistent, playing favorites, so there’s no way to win on this from a popularity side of it,” he says.

Because the rule was clearly announced and is designed to protect students and the school facility, Mr. Riddile says, “it seems like what a reasonable person would do.”

As a principal himself he had incidents where students climbed a smokestack to paint words, despite the school’s attempt to prohibit it, and one was permanently injured. So he understands the safety concerns with the actions of Tate and his friends, who used ladders to reach high up on the wall. Riddile also recalls a case where students burned a message into the football field, causing thousands of dollars in damage.

The reaction online has leaned much more toward sympathy for a good student about to miss his prom for the crime of trying to be romantic. The Facebook page “Let James Tate Go to the Prom” had more than 171,000 supporters as of noon Friday. And Twitter is all atwitter with messages bearing the hashtag #teamtate.

Tate has made appearances on the Today Show and Jimmy Kimmel Live.

A sit-in involving about 90 students at Shelton High School Friday morning resulted in four who didn’t disperse being sent home, according to ctpost.com.

Supporters have also proposed an alternate prom, for which various groups have agreed to make donations.

But Tate and his family have said he would not attend an alternative, because they believe there should be just one prom, according to NewsTimes.com.

There’s still one chance, perhaps, for Tate and Ms. Rodrigues to dance together at the prom – without a change of heart from the headmaster.

Connecticut Rep. Jason Perillo of Shelton has crafted a Tate-inspired amendment to an education bill that could come up for a vote before early June and could take effect right away if passed.

The law would require schools to offer community service as an alternative punishment to being barred from a school function. The principal would get to determine the nature and amount of community service and offer the student the choice between the two punishments. And it would not apply to cases involving violence, property damage, or criminal acts.

Representative Perillo says he heard from so many constituents that he felt impelled to act. What strikes him as unfair about the Shelton policy, he says, is the date cut-off. “A boy who (hypothetically) punches his girlfriend on March 31 can go to prom, but this kid who put letters up can’t go. That’s not equitable,” he says. “I wanted a solution that wouldn’t tie the school’s hands, but would provide flexibility.”

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