In this still image taken from a video, Airman Cassey Widener salutes as his sister, Courtrney Widener, arrives for prom at Liberal High School in Liberal, Kan. (Tammy Garth/via AP)
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WICHITA, KAN. — A Kansas high school principal who barred a member of the Air Force from escorting his sister to prom has apologized to him in an attempt to quell a firestorm that’s been fueled by a YouTube video of the debacle and the girl’s heartfelt letter to the newspaper.
A policy change allowing exceptions to the age limitation will be presented at Monday’s upcoming school board meeting, Deputy Superintendent Paul Larkin said Tuesday. Current policy in the district located in the southwest Kansas community of Liberal prohibits anyone 21 years old or older from participating in prom activities.
The video that went viral showed Liberal High School junior Courtney Widener arriving at the April 20 prom with her 22-year-old brother, Senior Airman Casey Widener. He stopped and stood at attention at the foot of the red carpet while Courtney and another girl continued unescorted across the promenade. As she went inside, Casey crisply saluted her before turning and leaving amid applause from onlookers.
“There were hurt feelings on both sides, you know,” Larkin said in a phone interview. “I think the best thing is when we came together. I don’t think this family had any intention of shedding any negative light on the district whatsoever and by all means we had no intention of dishonoring their son.”
At Courtney’s request, school officials met with her and her family Monday afternoon during a meeting in which High School Principal Keith Adams apologized to her brother, The High Plains Daily Leader and Southwest Daily Times reported.
“I am sorry that Casey Widener was offended or dishonored in any way,” Adams said. “That was not our intent.”
Larkin acknowledged that the national attention the prom incident received as the YouTube video was picked up by news and social media outlets was “a contributing factor” in the school district’s decision to speed up the timeline for changing its policy: “It made us a little more anxious to get some resolution to this issue,” he said.
The proposed policy change would prohibit anyone 21 or older from participating in the dance itself, but provide for exemptions so that older family members or others with prior permission could escort students across the red carpet.
Courtney told The Associated Press in a phone interview Tuesday that it was important to her to have her brother escort her at the prom because she had only seen him once since he arrived back from his deployment in Afghanistan last September. She said that even though her brother was unable to do so, what he did on the red carpet that night honored her. She said she still had a great night at her prom, and was touched when she saw the video of him saluting her.
Even though school officials rejected Courtney’s request to have her brother escort her, the siblings figured they were following the rules since he took her only to the foot of the carpet before stopping.
“I feel proud of what I did, and I feel proud for standing up for myself and for what I thought was right,” Courney said.
She said she got an overwhelming amount of support from many people, but everyone was surprised at the national attention the incident brought to the small 20,861-resident Kansas community located about 200 miles southwest of Wichita.
“Both the district and my family were amazed at how crazy it got,” she said. “We never expected it to blow up like this. We definitely did not want that. We wanted a change, but we didn’t want it to come about like this.”