Private school prom theme stirs debate

BY ELLEN FUTTERMAN AND MIKE SHERWIN, EDITOR AND MANAGING EDITOR

Perceptions of religious insensitivity over this year’s prom invitations at John Burroughs School have touched off a controversy, much of which has been chronicled on a local Web site, www.stlouis-catholic.blogspot.com. Dozens of posts debate whether the invitations, pegged to the prom theme of the Seven Deadly Sins, is an appropriate choice for the prestigious private school in Ladue.

For Catholics, the Seven Deadly Sins are “mortal sins,” requiring the sacrament of confession or contrition to prevent eternal damnation. Some bloggers take exception to a pentagram used on one of the invitations, saying it is blasphemous, and note connections to Satan and devil worshippers. In Judaism, there is no equivalent to the Seven Deadly Sins, says Rabbi Daniel Plotkin of B’nai El Congregation (also a member of the Jewish Light board of trustees).

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“When I first heard the choice (of prom theme), I thought it was goofy,” said Kris Holmes, who has two children attending Burroughs, including a daughter who is a senior and plans to go to the prom. “But I have real respect for the faculty and administration. They must have had all the information to feel it was OK. Burroughs is really tight on values – they walk the walk. I am comfortable with the theme because of the school and its staff.

“Do I think it was the best decision? I don’t know. Do I think it will be handled well? Absolutely.”

For Tim, the Catholic blogger behind the blog on which much of the debate appeared, the Seven Deadly Sins theme was not particularly offensive to his religious beliefs. “I just thought it was completely inappropriate,” said Tim, who explained that in the blogger-sphere, last names are not used. The real issue came when “self-stated Catholic parents” of students at Burroughs defended the school’s prom theme in comments on his blog. “It just floored me that there were Catholic parents out there who saw no problem with making fun of what is a very serious issue.”

“In no way am I saying Burroughs should embrace Catholic values,” he said. “I’m really addressing the issue with the Catholic readership of my blog.”

Typically, Burroughs juniors and their parents throw the annual prom for the seniors. Much of the controversy is centered on the invitations in which different images depict the various deadly sins. And then there is the invitation verbiage: “Calling all sinners . . . we request your presence in hell.”

Burroughs parent Greg Smith thinks the so-called controversy is “much ado about nothing.” He says the materials are not disrespectful, satanic or inappropriate but rather edgy. And while he respects the right of some parents and students to object to the theme, he hopes that doesn’t stop the majority of the students who want the theme to go forward with it.

In a letter Smith sent to Headmaster Keith Shahan, Smith writes: “The materials are dramatic, creative, artistic and, most importantly, edgy. They reflect the sort of unique thinking about otherwise conventional life that I have enjoyed seeing from numerous classmates of the four children I have sent to John Burroughs.

“The whole theme is, to any experienced Burroughs parent, the usual satirical view of things one can expect from young, bright people who are encouraged to think progressively, openly and with few boundaries. At worst, the whole thing is maybe a little sophomoric, but, hey, these are high school kids.”

Several Burroughs students who were contacted about the prom theme referred any questions or inquiries to school administrators.

Andrew Abbott, assistant headmaster at Burroughs, says most of the controversy arose from the invitations, rather than the prom theme itself.

“The school regrets that the invitations went out,” Abbott said. “Our students are given considerable latitude, but in this case we probably should have been more careful.

“Usually the prom themes are very creative, and even very cute. In past years we’ve had a Willy Wonka theme, a Great Gatsby theme and even one that was just called ‘Shiny Things,’ where they decorated with foil,” he said. This prom theme will be mainly centered on the decorations, Abbott added, with an entry table decorated as “Greed,” the photo area as “Pride” and the food tables as “Gluttony.”

However, Abbott notes that the theme was “intended ironically,” particularly because the proms are comparatively low-key affairs, held at the school.

“Certainly there was no anti-religious sentiment,” he said. “This is truly an environment where all religions are valued. We have a long history of being a diverse community.”

During a morning school assembly, administrators spoke to students about the incident. “The message was that we understand that the intent was to be creative and ironic and we don’t believe that anybody intended to disparage any religion, however, we need to be very cautious and sensitive to all religions and that we regretted that we let the invitation go out,” Abbott said.