Students from all Carroll County public high schools walked a red carpet into the gymnasium at Winters Mill High School in Westminster and “danced through the decades” at a very special prom event Friday afternoon.
The countywide Special Needs Prom was held for the first time this week since the COVID-19 pandemic forced cancellations in 2020 and 2021. Students with special needs who may not be able to attend their home school’s prom for a variety of reasons, such as health or safety concerns or difficulty with the location, are invited each year to attend, enjoy food, music and general socializing with their peers, and crown a prom king and queen from each school.
The idea began in 2013, when a teacher and classroom assistant at Liberty High School decided to host a prom event in their classroom. An event for all the high school special needs classes began the following year.
“The first reason was to provide the students who couldn’t attend the prom with an opportunity to experience the same thing as their peers,” said coordinator Julie Koontz, a special education secondary instructional consultant with Carroll County Public Schools.
“The second [reason] was to build more opportunities for the students to interact with one another. Many of the students would leave their home school and transition into the Transition Connections Academy and then into Adult Services. The students didn’t know one another and that made the transition difficult socially for the students.”
On Friday, students arrived at Winters Mill at about 11 a.m. and enjoyed music from different decades. Each school was able to bring along general education students who are members of Friends for Life or Best Buddies clubs at their schools to the prom to dance and interact with the special needs students. Adult support was also available for anyone who needed it.
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Aside from being a fun, social event, the prom also serves an educational purpose.
“There are lessons about elections and majority rule, party planning, job skills related to a large event, we have created items for fundraisers, making decorations, and planning a menu,” Koontz said. “Our speech and language pathologists work with the students on social skills, how to ask someone to dance, how to gracefully accept it if someone declines a dance, and what to do if someone asks your dance partner to dance with them.”
Sharon Cassatt, an alternative framework teacher at FSK High School, said students and staff all look forward to the prom each year.
“We love dancing at the prom and the students are always the ones teaching us new dances,” Cassatt said.
Funds from the canceled event in 2020 were used to put on this year’s prom. Each school hosts fundraisers, such as restaurant nights or food or plant sales, and also seeks out community donations.
Cassatt says the event is always a lovely time.
“I can’t express what an amazing event this is for the students,” she said, adding that it allows the students a place “where they can be themselves and feel accepted.”