Junior prom theme, ‘Southern Soiree,’ sparks controversy in Southold

The Southold School District is facing backlash after a staff member referred to this year’s junior prom as having a “southern plantation vibe” in an email to students.

The event, initially billed as a ‘Southern Soiree,’ sparked confusion among students over whether to dress in formal attire or cowboy boots and hats when it was unveiled last week.

In an attempt to clarify the theme, a staff member who heads the prom committee sent an email to students Friday that described the venue as having a “southern plantation vibe,” that would be similar to a “cotillion” ball where “elite southern young people” enter society.

The event will be held at the Royalton Farm, a prominent 37-acre estate and equestrian center on Cox Neck Road in Mattituck.

“The wording was absolutely inappropriate and should have been more thought out before being sent,” Southold senior Isaiah Mraz, 18, said in an interview Tuesday. He said he didn’t feel that the faculty member who sent the email had “malintent,” but that it could have been prevented with some forethought.

Word quickly spread throughout the student body and even into neighboring school districts.

Greenport High School senior Yan Albaladejo-Ramirez, 17, said a friend from Southold, who is Black, was venting to him about the issue over the weekend. “He said it was tone deaf and he felt offended by it personally,” Yan said, adding that he felt he had a “moral obligation” to speak up.

He wrote a letter to Southold High School principal Terence Rusch and started a petition calling on the school to change the prom theme.

“Even though one might be able to easily overlook the connections of antebellum era southern culture and slavery or racism, this is simply unacceptable in our age,” Yan wrote in the letter to the administration, which also described the theme as “dehumanizing, painful and downright disrespectful” to all students, not just students of color.

According to data published by the New York State Education Department, Southold High School’s enrollment for the 2020-2021 school year was 63% white, 31% Hispanic or Latino, 2% Black, 2% Asian and 1% multiracial.

“To have the ugly face of an institution and culture so closely linked to racism rear its head in modern day society is disheartening and frankly horrifying,” Yan said.

The petition had amassed more than 200 signatures by Wednesday afternoon.

The Royalton estate in Mattituck. (File photo)

In addition to the letter and petition, Yan began creating memes to express his feelings about the prom theme which were shared on his Snapchat story. He said the memes were circulated around and were eventually viewed by administrators in Southold.

Yan said he was called into the office by Greenport principal Gary Kalish on Monday afternoon and asked him to take the memes down from social media. “He told me that Southold is dealing with their situation and thought I was throwing gas on the fire,” Yan said. He ultimately agreed to take down the posts.

Southold juniors on Monday were called into an assembly by the high school administration to discuss the prom theme and “proper use of social media,” Mr. Rusch confirmed Wednesday. The prom theme has since been changed to “An Evening at the Royalton,” he added.

In a brief video of the assembly obtained by the Suffolk Times, an administrator can be heard telling students that they “will be suspended or worse” if they share posts on the issue, adding that they “slander the school, slander our staff, slander our principal. It’s not right … This is serious.”

Mr. Mraz said the threats made to students by the administrator are “a violation of the First Amendment.”

Two other students asked to remain anonymous for fear that they would face disciplinary measures at school. “This hasn’t been our first issue with [the administrator] in terms of silencing us with threats of suspension,” one student said. “The way [this] is being handled is completely unprofessional and unbelievable.”

Mr. Rusch said that no students have faced any disciplinary consequences for speaking out on the issue. “We value and empower student voice,” he said Wednesday. “As educators it is our responsibility to help students use their voice to express individual opinions in productive, positive ways.”

Britta Babashak, president of Southold Parent-Teacher Association, supported students speaking out against being silenced.

“I’m really supportive of the kids for doing what they thought was right,” Ms. Babashak said. “I’m proud of the kids who felt the need to speak up and say something about what was right.”

In a letter sent home to families Tuesday, Mr. Rusch acknowledged the concerns. “The word plantation may express a connotation of racism,” he wrote. “This was neither the original spirit of the event’s theme, nor is it a representation of Southold’s community, school, faculty, staff or our students.”

Mr. Rusch also wrote that a “social media whirlwind” over the last two days cast an “inaccurate view” of the theme’s original intent.

He told a reporter Wednesday that the staff member who sent the email has discussed the “unfortunate error and misunderstanding” with the prom committee, students and plans to address the issue at another student assembly with 11th- and 12th- graders on Thursday.

During the meeting with students, Mr. Rusch said he hopes to clarify misunderstandings in order to make all students feel more comfortable regarding the prom as well as listen to concerns and comments. “Our message is how we, as a community, can learn from this and move forward together, inclusive of all students and their voice,” he said.