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Should graduation gowns be gender neutral? That’s the debate going on right now at Braintree High School. A group of students have petitioned district leaders to use just one color for their graduation gowns, arguing it’s more inclusive, especially for students who are transgender or gender non-binary. But the idea of parting with decades worth of tradition isn’t going over well with everyone in the community.
The colors at Braintree High School traditionally break down along gender lines on graduation day: usually girls wear white and boys wear blue. For senior Ivy Stanton, that separation goes against the spirit of the celebration.
"The whole entire purpose of graduation is to stand together as one class that's overcome many challenges together," she said. "In doing so, we transcend physical abilities and limitations. We transcend racial and ethnic divides … We should also try to transcend division by gender. I think that’s very important."
Stanton and members of the school’s Gay Straight Alliance argue it’s time Braintree High School moved to a more gender neutral tradition and issued only blue gowns to graduates. Stanton added, the two color system could open some students up to harassment and can be harmful to students who are gender non conforming that may not identify with either color.
Not everyone is on board. Senior Kiera Bulger created a change.org petition last week to voice her opposition. So far, more than 1,300 people have signed. Bulger declined a request for a recorded interview, but on the petition website she wrote, “The choice of wearing a blue or white cap and gown to graduation has been a tradition at BHS for years.” She argued that students should have the final say on the matter.
Most of the comments on the petition appear to be from people who, according to social media, had a connection to the town or high school. Former Braintree High School students like Heather Viscount also pointed to tradition as the reason to keep the two color system. "I am a 1987 graduate of Braintree High School and the colors always WERE and should REMAIN blue and white!!" she wrote.
And a few people, like Braintree resident Dennis Doyle, added more politically charged arguments. "We need to get over all this politically correctness and rise above the pressure of society. It's gone way way too far," he said.
Officials with Braintree Schools also declined a request for a recorded interview. In a written statement, superintendent Frank Hackett praised students for speaking up and using their voices to debate the matter. He added, "In accordance with School Committee policy, we are in the process of putting together a Task Force comprising students, staff, administrators, school community members, and local leaders. It will be a good opportunity for us to learn and grow as a community, and we know how important it is to our students that we make a timely decision."
If Braintree High School does make this change, it would join a growing number of schools across Massachusetts that switched to a single color graduation gown. The state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education doesn’t track how many schools have done away with the two color tradition, but officials estimate it's a majority of state public schools.
The move began in earnest shortly after lawmakers passed the Massachusetts Transgender Equal Rights Act in 2012. Since then, state education officials have issued new guidance documents around gender based policies that encouraged schools to reconsider dress code practices for events like graduation and prom.
School districts like Amesbury, Hingham, Sharon and North Attleboro have made the move to a more gender neutral graduation dress code in the last four years. Hull High School was also among them. They made the switch to single colored graduation gowns with the class of 2016. Superintendent Michael Devine said from start to finish the decision took about two weeks and proved to be less controversial.
"It was the best thing to do for kids so we just did it," he said.
School leaders informed the school committee, but ultimately Devine said the choice was left up to the student government.
"They were so open minded about issues of gender and sexuality that most of them just said 'Yeah, it makes sense,'" he remembered.
Devine said when the school first rolled out the new gown policy he got a few dozen phone calls and emails with complaints, most from parents and community members. Today though, he said it's become a non-issue.
"This really took hold for the classes of 2016 and 2017," said Duane Fox, who ran University Cap and Gown in Lawrence for more than 50 years. (His company has since merged with Balfour, a class ring manufacturer). He said having enough time to order the right inventory is the key to making the transition smooth for the students. Fox explained, in his experience, when schools wait to order until February or March, it's cutting it close.
Officials with Braintree Schools said they hope to have an answer to Ivy Stanton and the rest of the class of 2020 before plans have to be finalized for graduation in June.
This segment aired on January 27, 2020.
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