Nights to remember: Hosting, hookups, and homecoming hype of paid student party culture

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Emily Sun, Staff Writer

“We were packed into a room, there was no food, there were no drinks, the DJ was terrible, the ceiling was collapsing, and a freshman broke the pool deck — I’d give it a one out of ten,” Frankie* (12) said, who asked to be anonymous to avoid judgment from teachers and peers for attending Hoco this year. “I wasted $30 when I could have just been watching Netflix at home.”

Other students had a better experience: when Doris* (12), whose parents requested that she remain anonymous, walked into the Hoco venue with her friends and heard the blaring music, it felt like they escaped into a different world, she said. “It’s almost like Cinderella — it’s totally cut off from reality and it gives you a chance to just forget about everything that you’ve been stressed about.”

Despite its mixed reviews, Hoco and similar events have remained constant at the school for over 20 years. Three main out-of-school parties punctuate the school year: Hoco near Homecoming and Halloween, Winterfest in December, and Lovefest near Valentine’s Day, which did not take place this year. Students turn out in the hundreds and hosts spend thousands as the party tradition passes from grade to grade, steeped in a culture around pregames, hookups, and pricey tickets.

Coco Trentalancia (11) had not gone to any large parties in high school before, so she attended Hoco this year to check off a box on the list of stereotypical “high school experiences,” she said. “I would have been disappointed if I didn’t.” It was good to experience a high school party, but there are better ways for her to spend time with her friends as she could barely talk to them over the crowd and music, Trentalancia said. “I don’t think I’ll be going again. It’s a ‘been there, done that’ kind of thing.”

According to an Upper Division poll conducted by The Record which 198 students chose to respond to, 82 students, approximately 41.4% of the responses, went to Hoco this year, the majority of which were seniors. Of the 116 students who said they had not gone, 74, about 46.5%, plan to go in the future while 35, about 22%, do not.

Rumors passed down from grade to grade shroud Hoco and similar parties in notoriety, Frankie said. The rumors turn Hoco into a myth — a big high school party filled with drinking and predatory hookups — for underclassmen who have never attended. “Once you’re a senior you see it for what it really is — an excuse for people to dress in promiscuous costumes and hang out with their friends and make out for an hour,” she said.

The mythological sheen also faded for Stacey* ’19, who requested anonymity so her name is not associated with the party, when she attended Hoco in her sophomore, junior, and senior years, she said. The party is “hyped-up” in a way that inflates people’s expectations for it, she said.

Those expectations create an exaggerated idea of alcohol, drugs, and sex at the party, Doris, who attended Hoco her senior year, said. “If you had walked up to me when I was a freshman and said, ‘what are the three things you associate with Hoco?’ that’s exactly what I would have said.”

These sentiments are far from new, as a Record article (Volume 101, Issue 8) titled “HM Students Gone Wild?” described Hoco as “an ageless tradition, which has become inherently part of an HM high school experience.” An opinion piece in the same issue called it “drunken orgies dominated by binge drinking, sex, and drugs.”

The gossip around Hoco makes it seem more intense than it is, Stacey said. “It’s a very average, normal party,” she said. “Alcohol is just inherently involved with weekend party plans in high school, but the reason [Hoco] is such a big thing is because it’s one of the only parties that is school-wide.” 

Since the school does not host a Homecoming dance like many other schools, Hoco is an indicator of the “Horace Mann high schooler” experience that students look forward to, Doris said. “You go through the Upper Division hearing about all the things you’ll get to experience when you’re a junior or a senior, and Hoco has always been one of the biggest things of senior year.”

The party provides a “getaway” from the routine of school, Doris said. As someone who gets lost in a cycle of school, extracurriculars, and homework, Hoco was a chance to remind herself that she is allowed to have fun. “Everyone is jumping up and down, dancing, laughing, shouting the lyrics,” she said. “You really can just let go and be a teenager and maybe do something really stupid, and no one else is gonna judge you because everyone else around you is doing the same thing.”

SCHOOL’S RESPONSE

In addition to informal stories spread by students, formal school practices, such as the letter that the school administration sends to parents and the ninth grade Horace Mann Orientation (HMO) curriculum, also continue the Hoco tradition, Stacey said.

There is a stigma around the types of people who host and attend Hoco, Carter* ’20, who hosted Hoco and Lovefest in her junior year and Hoco in her senior year, said. She asked to be anonymous because of the negative perception around out-of-school parties.

For Carter, the stigma arose from the letter that past Head of the Upper Division (UD) Dr. David Schiller sent to parents about Hoco. A 2013 iteration of the letter stated that “going to these events is not in your children’s best interests” and that UD administrators have had “bitter experience with the unfortunate aftermath of these events.” When Carter read Schiller’s email in her freshman year, it gave her an impression of the party as something negative that the school opposed, she said.

Past communications also discouraged students from attending Hoco, such as a 2010 letter written by then Director of Counseling and Guidance Jennifer McFeely in which she asked parents to “prohibit [students] from attending,” citing risks like unwanted sexual activity, physical altercations, overcrowding, and drug and alcohol abuse that arose at the 2009 event.

Head of the UD Jessica Levenstein shifted the school to a neutral stance on Hoco by changing the “alarmist” tone of the letter when she succeeded Schiller’s position in 2016. She decided that it was not her place to tell parents how to make decisions that have nothing to do with the school, as she does not have first-hand knowledge of the party, she said.

Instead, the letter clarifies that the school is not affiliated with Hoco so that parents can have informed conversations with their children about it. “The whole point of my letter is just to say that Hoco is not an HM party.” she said. “I don’t say it’s bad or good, I don’t say anything about it, I just say it’s not an HM thing.”

PARTY CULTURE: PREGAMES, HOOKUPS, AND TICKETS

Aspects of party culture show up in HMO as part of a lesson on smart social decision making, Dean of the Class of 2025 Susan Groppi said. The class teaches students what to do when faced with pressure and allows ninth graders to ask their peer leaders anonymous questions about Hoco or other social gatherings, she said. “A lot of times they have questions like, ‘Is there a lot of drinking at parties?’” Peer leaders have a range of opinions, and many have said that no one cares if someone drinks or not at a party, contrary to beliefs in peer pressure, Groppi said.

Even though there might not be explicit pressure to drink, there is still a prevalent narrative of pregames before parties that encourage people to drink, Doris said. “I 120 percent expect that if there is a party, kids are going to pregame,” she said. “It’s literally a fact of nature at this point because that’s just how teenagers are.”

Students have the right to “let loose” once in a while as long as they take precautions to be safe and responsible, but problems arise when students drink without understanding their limit, Gordon said. Since underclassmen are more susceptible to social norms and might drink to “fit in” and not seem like a “prude,” they should wait to attend the party when they are older, she said. 

Doris waited until senior year to attend the party; she knew that she might have caved to peer pressure and drink when she was younger because she used to worry about what other people thought of her, she said. This year, Doris went to Hoco with a group of friends, none of whom decided to pregame because they did not find it fun, she said.

Pregaming helps Estelle* (12), who requested anonymity due to the illicit nature of her quote, loosen up before parties, she said. Drinking can relax her, put her in a more energetic mood, and give her a confidence boost, she said. Estelle and her friends met two hours before Hoco at one friend’s place to pregame. “It’s not just to get drunk, it’s just a fun way to get together with friends before a bigger party, drink, talk, there’s music going on, and sometimes you play drinking games.”

Most attendees pregamed before Hoco, Estelle said. “One of the things that qualifies a party is the presence of illegal substances, and since at Hoco you can’t have those inside, it’s just assumed that there’s going to be a pregame.” Pregames are often hyperbolized in the media — when she was a freshmen, she imagined peer pressure and heavy drinking — but they can be done responsibly, she said. She and her friends know their limits, check in on each other, and no one pressures other people to drink. “No one’s even really looking out for [if other people are drinking],” she said.

Trentalancia did not pregame before Hoco this year, though some of her friends did as they got ready for the party, she said. She and her friends looked out for one another so they would not “go overboard” and stuck together at the venue because they were scared of getting hurt or roofied if they were alone, she said. While she has never experienced that before, Trentalancia was worried because she heard it happens at parties, she said. “We held each other’s hands, we had our phones on constantly, and we made sure that all our phones were at 100 percent beforehand.”

Drinking at Hoco and similar parties enables an environment where people are more open to hookups, Riya Daga (11) said, who went to Hoco this year. Hookup culture is not necessarily negative, as long as people do not pressure or judge others, she said. “If you’re a teenager, this is your time to experiment — you can see if you want a long term or short term relationship, do you even want a relationship, what type of connection do you want with someone.”

However, alcohol can create conditions for people to violate others’ consent, Estelle said. “I’ve experienced and I’ve seen people experience a guy taking advantage of a girl with the knowledge that she can’t say no as easily because she’s drunk and pressure her into hooking up with him.” 

Gender dynamics also shape how people define a “successful” party, Estelle said. Of the students who responded to the poll, female attendees outnumbered male attendees for both juniors and seniors. “Girls worry about how they look in the eyes of the male gaze when they go to a party. You want to look good so that a guy will be attracted to you and ask you to hook up,” she said. “It sends a message that puts self value on hooking up, and that’s really stupid.”

Age gaps at parties like Hoco that are open to all grades also allow older boys to exploit younger girls, Doris said. When she was a freshman and sophomore, ticket prices to Hoco revealed that predatory possibility. “Underclassmen boys would have to pay a ridiculous amount of money for a ticket, but underclassmen girls didn’t,” she said. “Upperclassmen boys wanted [underclassmen girls] at the party because they think they’re ‘easy,’ which is disgusting.”

While not every teenage boy would use it, older boys have power over younger girls due to their age and gender, which they can use to their advantage, Doris said. “If you’re a freshman and a senior walks up to you and starts flirting with you, you’re so caught up in the fact that the senior is flirting with you that you don’t realize what’s happening,” she said. The chaos at parties heightens the risk because it is easy to get lost in the crowd or a dark corner away from other people’s view, she said.

Hoco tickets this year did not have different prices for boys and girls, though tickets for underclassmen were more expensive to discourage their attendance, Doris said. Tickets were sold on Eventbrite, starting at $30 for seniors, $40 for juniors, $60 for sophomores, and $70 for freshmen. Only one male and one female student went to Hoco out of the 39 freshmen who responded to The Record poll.

“I bought my ticket right when [the hosts] released them because they had threatened prices were about to go up,” Frankie said. A few days before Hoco, sales to freshman and sophomores ended, while prices for junior and senior tickets rose to $100 with an $8.18 fee, along with “CUT THE LINE” tickets for $200 with a $14.58 fee.

Estelle, along with about 20 other seniors, each spent $100 on tickets because they missed the initial sale, she said. “It’s genuinely embarrassing that I paid so much money for such a bad party.” The high cost was not a barrier for her, but it speaks to the school’s socioeconomic norms that so many students are willing to pay, as well as the potential to exclude people who do not want to pay that much for one night, she said.

Ticket sales are banned on campus, as page 47 of the Student Handbook says “the School prohibits students or their families from distributing invitations to private or commercial parties during school and discourages private parties, except on weekends.” Students who sell tickets on campus would incur serious disciplinary trouble, which has happened in the past, Groppi said. The hosts of Hoco 2021 added a note on Eventbrite: “DO NOT use your school email to buy the tickets and don’t carry your ticket around school. Don’t be stupid.”

HOSTING

Before the pregames and Instagram shoots, the hour-long lines and crowded rooms, students who host the events secure venues, negotiate a contract, rack up expenses, and sell tickets to cover their costs, while safeguarding their operation from legal liabilities.

Carter took on the role because several of her friends who had hosted the year before asked her to do it since she went to Hoco sophomore year, she said. “It still has a bad rep for certain people that it’s just one really large mosh pit of teenagers,” she said. “I’m not saying that’s not true, but I don’t think there’s necessarily anything wrong with it.” The parties can be safe for hosts and party-goers if they take the right precautions, she said. “My parents would have never allowed me to throw it if it would have been an actual liability.”

Few people volunteer because of the high cost, so there was no competition between potential hosts in her years, Carter said. “The difficult part is putting up money and putting your name on the form [that hosts sign with the venue]” she said. “No one wants to do it.” It is a fun party to host as long as they priced tickets correctly to earn back the money and followed the venue’s rules, she said.

Venues must be willing to host unsupervised attendees ages 18 and under, and they are normally located in downtown Manhattan, where the prices are cheaper, Carter said. She and her co-host knew the owner of an empty lot that they had used for a photoshoot, so they rented it for Hoco 2018 and Lovefest 2019. They hosted Hoco 2019 at The Vintage New York Lifestyle (VNYL), a nightclub in the East Village.

Carter and her co-host found their venues by asking friends for recommendations of places where they had thrown events such as b’nai mitzvot and sweet sixteens, she said. “People say tickets are absurdly overpriced, but it’s purely because it’s a venue in New York City,” she said. “It’s just very expensive to throw, so therefore you have to charge a lot.” The hosts paid the venue once they signed their contract, which made up the bulk of party expenses. She declined to disclose the exact price of the lot and VNYL, though VNYL was more expensive, she said. 

The Rooftop at Selina Chelsea, the venue for Hoco 2021, charges $5,000 to $8,000 to rent the space for a large group gathering on a Saturday night. Prices fluctuate depending on the date and time of the event. The first and last months of the year, when parties usually take place, are the busiest and most expensive time for venues, a Selina Chelsea representative said.

Party costs also included a security deposit paid to the venue in case someone broke something during the party, which was bound to happen, Carter said. “It’s the most annoying expense because if anything is scratched or damaged, even if it’s something slight, you won’t get the security deposit back.”

The other large expense was security. Venues required hosts to pay for at least one or two licensed security personnel based on a list they provided, or one that the host found on their own, Carter said. “We were trying to get around that [cost] and have our friends be security, but no venue said yes.” She took the venue’s recommendation, though she does not remember which security company they hired, and declined to comment on the price.

Carter and her co-host split the cost of the party with money they earned from different jobs, she said. To supplement their contribution, they held a ticket presale before finalizing the deal with the venue to raise $1,000. “Depending on who you ask, that would be questionable, but we needed the money,” she said.

After they signed the contract with the venue, they opened the general sale. They guessed how many people from each grade would attend, then set prices based on how much they had to charge to cover the costs of the party. Carter and her co-host made a profit from the two Hoco parties, earning money on top of what they paid to cover the expenses. “I threw the first [party] for profit, I’m just gonna be honest,” she said. “None of our parents gave us money so we had to put up our own, and if I was gonna put up that much money, I needed to get money back.”

In contrast to Hoco, they donated the money made from Lovefest to Feeding America, a charity that they were previously involved in, Carter said. “We needed to make back what we spent on it, but after that, we didn’t want to profit off of everyone.”

RISKS & REWARDS

Students are divided on whether the Hoco experience is worth it, as students who had gone this year were almost evenly split on whether or not they would attend again next year — 40 plan to go again and 34 do not.

Trentalancia had higher expectations for the event based on her “overpriced” $40 ticket and was disappointed by its sparse offerings, especially after she was refused re-entry when she left the venue for five minutes due to overcrowding, she said.

The crowd made Frankie scared she might catch COVID once she got to the party, though she did not, she said. The Eventbrite asked attendees to bring their vaccination cards, but no one checked hers. “The venue was packed, everybody’s breath was in everybody’s face, so I was like, ‘if I don’t get COVID after this, that’s a miracle.’”

COVID was also a concern for Andy* (11), who requested anonymity to avoid judgment from his peers. He wore a mask half of the time at the party, though only about a quarter of the people in attendance also did, he said. “I don’t know how COVID safe it was, but it was fun.”

Since most attendees were students at the school, Daga was not worried about COVID because everyone had to be vaccinated, even though few people wore their masks, she said. “I wore mine for the first five minutes and then immediately I lost it.”

Even though the party itself was not worth how much Stacey paid for her ticket, her memories from before and after Hoco made it worthwhile, she said. “The more fun part was the bonding aspect — planning outfits, taking pictures, planning what we’re going to do before or after, talking about in the library, because that’s all anyone talks about for the two weeks leading up to it,” she said. “It’s a high school kid thing to do.”

As Doris got ready for the party, she felt like she was in the “High School Musical 3” number “A Night to Remember,” she said. “Everyone’s getting ready together — one person is braiding three people’s hair, another girl is curling someone else’s hair, another girl is giving someone eyeliner — and it’s chaos in the best way.”

A student-run party is more expensive to attend than free school events, but its informal nature makes it appealing, Doris said. Although she enjoys school-sponsored gatherings, she would behave and dress differently at a party if there were teachers and adults present. “I hold back certain parts of myself because older generations don’t approve,” she said.

The school tried unsuccessfully to host a Homecoming party in the past, Schiller said in a Record article (Volume 108, Issue 1) titled “Letter to Parents Discourages Private Out-of-School Parties. “People thought it was ‘lame’ to be at school on a Saturday night,” he said in the article.

Parties like Hoco with looser enforcement allow students to bring illegal substances, which happens despite hosts warning against it to comply with venues’ rules. On Hoco 2021’s Eventbrite page, the hosts wrote, “DO NOT come drunk, high, or both because you will not be let in” and “no alcohol will be served/allowed inside the party, you also may be subject to search to ensure that nobody brings any illegal sh*t inside, so don’t even try.”

In practice, the guidelines are for show to satisfy a venue’s requirements since many attendees disregarded them, Frankie said. “I saw people with cigarettes, shot glasses, vape pens, weed, you name it.” Security outside the party checked Frankie for a ticket and patted her down before they let her into the venue, but they did not check the bag she carried with her for illegal substances, she said. “There was no enforcement — as long as you weren’t visibly drunk, they didn’t care that much.”

Despite attendees flaunting the rules, hosts who take the necessary precautions — do not distribute alcohol, instruct attendees to not bring any illicit substances, and hire security — would not be held liable if alcohol was found inside a party or if a partygoer experienced alcohol poisoning, Carter said. Her sophomore year, someone brought alcohol to Hoco, and everyone was asked to leave the venue. Only the person with alcohol faced consequences; that year’s Hoco host did not face consequences because he had followed the venue’s rules as listed on their contract, she said.

Hosts must sign a contract with their venue that details what they can and cannot do at the event, Carter said. She was not 18 at the time of the parties that she hosted, so the other host, who was 18, signed. Since it was a party with underage attendees, it stipulated that the bar would remain closed and no one could bring in alcohol — even if they were over 21 — or other illegal substances. Those who did would be asked to leave by security.

Both times Carter hosted Hoco, people brought alcohol to the venue and were refused entrance, then complained about their wasted money, she said. Even if she wanted to help her friends when they had alcohol on them, it was more important for her to follow the contract’s rules. “That’s something we took very seriously because it’s the only reason that people who host don’t get in trouble,” she said. “We didn’t want to take any chances.”

Even though the hosts set rules, they know that attendees will bring illegal items, Doris said. “If teenagers are going to parties, even if they know they’re not supposed to bring alcohol or drugs, I can promise you at every party, at least one kid has something they shouldn’t have.”

Doris did not bring anything, but she saw other students who had, she said. “I don’t judge them at all because you know what? Good for them, they’re having fun and living their life,” she said. “As long as you’re willing to accept the consequences, you can do anything you want.”