Top Stories 2022: Southold prom theme changed after it sparks controversy

Plans for a local high school’s prom celebration last spring was the cause of some controversy after “tone deaf” language was used to describe the annual celebration.

In March, Southold School District faced backlash after a staff member referred to the 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 initially unveiled.

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

Students and alumni from Southold and neighboring districts began an online petition to change the theme, which spread rapidly on social media and gained hundreds of signatures.

One student described the theme as “dehumanizing, painful and downright disrespectful” to all students — not just students of color.

In the days following the social media ire, which had gained the attention of New York news media, school administrators held a school assembly to discuss the prom theme and “proper use of social media.” A brief video obtained by the Suffolk Times contained audio of an administrator telling students that they could be “suspended or worse” if they continued to share social media posts about the issue.

High school principal Terence Rusch said no students faced disciplinary consequences for speaking out and apologized for the language used. The theme was ultimately changed to “An Evening at the Royalton.”

The incident sparked larger dialogue throughout the district, including a suggestion to form a diversity, equity and inclusion committee and encouraging school staff members to take professional development classes that celebrate diversity and inclusion to foster better understanding.