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11 years later, subject of 2004 fight to go to N.D. prom after being caught smoking wouldn't go through court battle again

In 2004, the then-18-year-old high school senior was barred from attending prom for violating school policy when the principal's wife, a bank teller in Hillsboro, saw her smoking a cigarette for a second time outside the bank. She also had given ...

Leona Banks poses for a selfie by the Christmas tree last December. Now 29, the former Hillsboro, N.D., high school student who went to court to go to prom in 2004 said she doesn't think about the case much anymore. Special to The Forum
Leona Banks poses for a selfie by the Christmas tree last December. Now 29, the former Hillsboro, N.D., high school student who went to court to go to prom in 2004 said she doesn't think about the case much anymore. Special to The Forum

HILLSBORO, N.D.-At the time, one part of Leona Fitzpatrick's high school experience seemed destined to overshadow the rest of her life.

In 2004, the then-18-year-old high school senior was barred from attending prom for violating school policy when the principal's wife, a bank teller in Hillsboro, saw her smoking a cigarette for a second time outside the bank. She also had given a classroom speech about smoking.

She took it to court, getting an injunction that allowed her to attend-and became a news story that went national.

The Forum last wrote about her in 2005, when she said she wanted to get away from the controversy in this small town 40 miles north of Fargo. But a decade later, if she had to do it all over again, she wouldn't.

"The attention part is fine, but just thinking back on it now, I'd much rather just sit out prom," she said.

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Now living in Minot, the 29-year-old is a married mother with a new name, Leona Banks.

She doesn't think much about her senior prom, though it comes up sometimes, she said. When someone learns she grew up in Hillsboro, they might mention the story, and she'll explain they're talking about her.

"It doesn't run my life, not like I thought it would way back in 2004," she said. "It is what it is, and it happened, and boy that was a long time ago."

Life after 2004

Banks moved to Minot in 2006 to attend Quentin N. Burdick Job Corps.

"Hillsboro wasn't a town for me with no education and little work to choose from," she said.

Banks didn't graduate from Hillsboro High School in 2004-she was a credit short after her senior year. In Minot, she completed the GED (General Educational Development tests), earned a high school diploma and started college to pursue a career as an electrician.

But life had other plans. While studying at Job Corps, she befriended and eventually began dating Sean Banks, and they were married in 2009.

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They became parents in 2007 with the arrival of Gavyn, and in 2010, second son Westley was born. But Westley died of heart failure just 14 months later.

Back in 2004, as Banks' fight for prom began, she had already given up the smoking habit she started at age 15. Shortly after she was seen smoking a cigarette at the bank, her grandfather died of a lung disease, and she quit.

She remains a nonsmoker, though there have been occasions when she's lit up again briefly, such as at her 10-year high school reunion in 2014 and after Westley's death.

Banks said she isn't exactly proud to have smoked at a young age, but she never thought it would keep her from prom until she was slapped with an 18-week suspension.

Students caught using alcohol, tobacco or drugs can be suspended from extracurricular activities, according to North Dakota High School Activities Association rules. In 2002, the Hillsboro School Board extended that policy to include dances.

The case landed in court after Banks' father suggested they fight the decision, and she successfully got a court injunction just days before prom.

Attempts this week to contact Hillsboro High School administrators who were in charge at the time were unsuccessful.

Still Oni

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While Banks said her senior prom-and the last-minute offer she accepted from three Fargo radio personalities to be her date-meant the world to her in 2004, she doesn't think about it much anymore.

Noel "Scotch" Anderson, one of Banks' three prom dates, said he was relatively new to radio at the time, and he and fellow Fox 107.9 disc jockeys Dui and Fred Bevill were looking for "gimmicky things to do" to build up buzz.

The trio showed up at Banks' home in a limo to escort her to prom, which Anderson said went well-though there may have been some there who weren't excited.

"When we first arrived, we were pulled aside by one of the administrators that kind of shook his head and said he wasn't really happy with the whole thing, but just wanted to make sure that we weren't going to be up to any antics," he said.

What seemed like the most important thing as a senior now seems trivial, Banks said, and she can't believe she fought for something "as silly as smoking."

Anderson, too, said he'd probably do things differently than how he handled it in 2004 as a 34-year-old making a name for himself.

"Now that I have kids, I'd probably look at these situations a little bit differently," he said. "If my son was caught smoking and wasn't allowed to go to the prom, I probably would just tell him to suck it up, that he made his bed and he'd have to lie in it."

These days, Banks is an engineer for a hotel chain who's looking forward to the arrival of her third child in November.

She's still Oni, the nickname she's gone by since childhood. But in a lot of ways, the 18-year-old Oni Fitzpatrick who became a news figure in 2004 seems like a "kid" compared to 29-year-old Oni Banks.

"Life is great," she said. "It's right where it's supposed to be."

Leona Banks poses for a selfie by the Christmas tree last December. Now 29, the former Hillsboro, N.D., high school student who went to court to go to prom in 2004 said she doesn't think about the case much anymore. Special to The Forum
Leona Banks poses for a selfie earlier this year. Now 29, the former Hillsboro, N.D., high school student who went to court to go to prom in 2004 said she doesn't think about the case much anymore. Special to The Forum

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