Don’t let your teen’s “big date” become a nightmare

Family/Kids, Crime, Relationships

Teen dating is fraught with emotional landmines – and some legal ones, too, for both the teens and their parents. Big events, like homecoming, prom, and graduation are notorious for parties that can land participants and hosts in hot water. Lurking beyond the corsages and posed pictures on the stairs are real, legal issues related to these special nights – things like underage drinking, parental responsibility, and discrimination. A parent’s best defense: know what to look out for, and take action in advance to avoid what you can.


The parties that accompany big events on the high school calendar are legendary. Sadly, often for the wrong reasons, like out-of-control drunken behavior, alcohol poisoning, or DUI. Some parents take matters into their own hands and host parties in their own home for their children and their friends, which might sound like a good idea until underage drinking becomes involved and one of the aforementioned issues arises.

Still, in some states, it is legal for parents to serve alcohol to their own children. States like New York, California, and many others list exceptions to the possession laws for “parents, guardians, and spouses.” However, no such exception exists for serving alcohol to other people’s children. Some states do allow it with express permission, but parents must first know their state laws and, and if it is legal in their state, they have to get consent from all the partygoers’ parents in advance.

The consequences can be dire, as pointed out by the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids, which hosts an interactive website to educate parents. According to the PDFK, “A majority of states have civil and or criminal penalties for adults who serve alcohol to underage kids at home.”

“Many well-intentioned parents think that supplying alcohol for their child to drink at home may teach them how to ‘drink responsibly’ and might prevent them from drinking elsewhere. But the truth is that early consumption of alcohol in any context increases the likelihood of harmful effects in the long run,” said Steve Pasierb, president and CEO of the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids, when the web resource launched.


While the debate over sexual consent has mostly centered on college campuses, it would be naïve to think that this is not a high school concern as well. The legal age of consent ranges from 16 to 18 in the United States. (The Global Justice Initiative has compiled a list of the laws in every state.) Under the state legislated age, sexual conduct is considered statutory rape, regardless of consent. If one party were 18 or over, that person could be charged as an adult and, if found guilty, be required to register as a sex offender.

Assuming that the teens are of age in their state, it is vital that parents help educate them on what does and doesn’t constitute consent. Many colleges and universities, including the University of Virginia, which has been rocked by scandal in this area, have policies and resources to help students. These resources could help high school parents and students as well. Recently, lawmakers in Connecticut considered a bill that would require an affirmative “yes”—not just the absence of a “no”—to constitute consent.

While the bill in Connecticut is on the leading edge of consent requirements, parents and students should have open and honest conversations about sex and consent if that is a concern.

Diversity and inclusion

Schools, too, can run afoul of the law during special event celebrations. Homecoming, prom, and graduation dances should be a happy time for every student, not just those who are in a majority. Schools have gotten into trouble in recent years for discriminatory action related to gender, identity, sexual preference, and even dress codes. Issues are so common for LGBT high school students that both GLAAD and the ACLU provide specific resource kits for students and media to deal with discrimination at school-sponsored dances.

“Every year, some LGBT students report that they are excluded from school-sponsored social events for wanting to bring a same-sex date. The ACLU believes that all students should have the same rights to bring a date of their choice, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity,” the organization states on its website.

Public schools can be held liable in court for discriminatory behavior. The ACLU cites a landmark federal court case from Rhode Island from 1980. Aaron Fricke won a First Amendment claim against his high school principal who tried to prevent Fricke from bringing another male student as his date to a school dance.

GLAAD provides guidance on being sensitive about language surrounding school dances and suggests approaching the event and any sensitive topics from an inclusive framework: for example, “date” instead of “boyfriend” or “girlfriend,” and “clothing” instead of “dress” or “tuxedo.”

Parents and school administrators can work together with all students, including any LGBT groups, to make sure that these “big nights” are open and welcoming events for everyone.