Oak Park and River Forest High School is seen on Monday, Sept. 27, 2021, on Lake Street in Oak Park, Ill. | ALEX ROGALS/Staff Photographer

Desmond Murphy couldn’t wait to go to the homecoming dance. About a week before the event, Murphy went out with his father and picked out a new suit, tie and dress shoes. All he had left to do was buy a ticket, a task that seemed easy enough but became the barrier.

Tickets were sold out in just a day and a half of going on sale, forcing dozens of students such as Murphy to hang up his suit and put it back in the closet.

“He was really, really disappointed, and I can imagine, you know, he’s a 14-year-old boy,” said Lauren Murphy, Desmond Murphy’s mother, adding this would have been her son’s first dance at Oak Park and River Forest High School.

Lauren said she knew Desmond “will be OK,” but “I can’t imagine how heartbreaking this [was]. For some kids, this [was] a really, really big deal.”

Tickets to OPRF’s homecoming dance – which was held Sept. 25 – were set to go on sale from Sept. 13 to 22. The first two days of the sale were reserved for upperclassmen, which meant Desmond, along with other freshmen and sophomores, had to wait until Sept. 15 to buy their tickets. But on that morning, the first day ticket sales opened for all OPRF students, all the tickets were sold by mid-morning, said Director of Student Activities Susan Johnson.

All 2,000 tickets were sold in about 36 hours, she said.

Johnson said OPRF typically sells about 2,000 tickets to the homecoming dance each year, but this was the first time the school sold tickets exclusively to OPRF students and capped the sale. And, that decision to limit the number of tickets was due to the school’s chosen venue, said Johnson.

 This year’s homecoming dance was held outdoors in an “alley area” near the south end of the high school, which could safely host a maximum of 1,000 students at a time, she said. That’s why this year’s dance was also split into two shifts, so each group of students could be easily accommodated. Normally, the dance would be held inside the field house, but that was not a viable option because of COVID-19, Johnson said.

“It wasn’t necessarily a safe thing for us to put 2,000 people in one room together this year, so we moved our homecoming outside,” Johnson said. “We had to come up with a plan to give them the size of the event, the impact of the event, while still moving it outside and keeping them safe.”

She said this year’s outdoor dance looked like a music festival. The hired deejay company would set up shop at one end of the alley, close to the football field, its large stage boasting colorful lights and booming speakers. The school also sought to offer a few spots for food, games and lounging, Johnson said.

That way, students had the chance to visit the “stage area and be part of the major party, or they can go to a couple of these common areas and still have fun outside and be safe,” Johnson said. Plans were approved by the Oak Park Department of Public Health, and school officials also mailed several letters to residents who live near the school, notifying them of the outdoor festivities. 

On Sept. 23, two days before the homecoming dance, school officials released a brief statement, addressing the sold-out tickets.

“While we did offer our seniors and juniors first priority for ticket purchases, more freshmen and sophomores bought tickets than upperclassmen,” school officials wrote. “We also limited tickets to only OPRFHS students, no guests, to ensure that this experience is enjoyed by as many Huskies as we can accommodate safely.”

Other parents such as Katherine Murray Liebl were still upset that there were just not enough tickets to go around and wondered whether organizers considered hosting the event at another outdoor venue so more students could have attended. She suggested maybe the school could have hosted two separate homecoming dances or closed the dance to just the upperclassmen.

“To have some kids from some classes able to go and some kids from some classes not able to go just really highlights feelings of exclusion,” said Liebl, whose son, an OPRF sophomore, was also unable to snag a ticket.

“In my mind, [the dance left] out kids who didn’t have access to the money right away or maybe they weren’t sure about whether or not they could go, or they could have been feeling anxious or weren’t sure how to go through the process of doing this,” she said.

Johnson said OPRF could not throw two separate homecoming dances because it hired the deejay company for only one event, which was already divided into time slots, and “we couldn’t add in a third shift. We couldn’t make it another day.”

The school also explored the possibility of hosting the dance on the football field but decided that location was not the best fit. Johnson said the field, which is made of artificial turf, has weight restrictions and was unable to accommodate the deejay company’s set up. The whole production would have been “so tamed” and brought down to a smaller scale that “we felt like our students would not be able to have a great experience if we did it” on the field,” Johnson said. Students would also have been asked to wear proper shoes to prevent damaging the field.

In a statement, school officials issued an apology for students, saying “we have to prioritize the health and safety of our students, and we are sorry that the pandemic has created conditions leading to disappointment for our students who weren’t able to secure tickets.” 

For parents such as Liebl, she said she understood that in life “you’re not always going to get what you want,” but not being able to go to a school dance shouldn’t have fallen into one of those teachable moments.

“You don’t always get to be on the team you want to be on. You don’t always get the grade you expected,” Liebl said. “You don’t always get all of these different things, but there are certain things that I feel like you should be able to count on. You should be able to count on your school making something like a dance accessible to everyone who wants to go.”

Join the discussion on social media!