Gateway grapples with gender-based graduation garb

Atkin said in terms of gender equality, the separation of sexes can imply that one group is above the other

Photo Courtesy: The Westfield News

HUNTINGTON, Mass. (The Westfield News) – Under new business Wednesday, the Gateway Regional School Committee tackled the issue of gendered graduation caps and gowns. Superintendent Dr. David B. Hopson said that historically, males have worn blue and females have worn white at Gateway graduations.

Hopson said the issue was brought to the attention of the School Committee via a letter from junior Dawson Atkin, president of the Gay Straight Alliance at Gateway. He said the letter spelled out many reasons students would not want to be identified by gender.

Hopson went on to say that high school principal Jason Finnie, to whom Atkin had originally addressed the letter in November, had recommended to the School Committee allowing seniors to choose whichever color they want to wear this year, and move on to a single color gown next year. Finnie had said he wanted the School Committee to be aware of the letter and the discussion taking place in the school, according to Hopson. Finnie was not present at the meeting.

Hopson said he supports going to a single color gown next year, and his recommendation would be to go to a black gown. He said a lot of issues would be resolved.

Hopson then invited Dawson Atkin, who wrote the letter, to address the School Committee. Atkin said he had learned that the original plan was to change the gowns to one color this year, but the seniors were not for it. He talked about the cost benefits to buying one color gowns in bulk. He also said one color gowns would bring unity, and that graduation would be the last time the class would be together as one.

Gateway Gay Straight Alliance members Mary MacNeil, Livia Shepard, Dawson Atkin, Jr., Julia Troie and Margaret Rock came to the School Committee meeting to support Atkin. (Photo by Amy Porter)

Atkin said in terms of gender equality, the separation of sexes can imply that one group is above the other. He said the state has set a standard for best practices that specifically mentions unnecessarily gendered activity, and gives gender-based garb for graduation as an example.

“We should follow best practices to become the best class we can be,” Atkin said.

Atkin also said that it’s Dr. Hopson’s job, as superintendent, to protect students. He said a lot of time, the response he has heard is that transgender people should be allowed to pick which color gown to wear. He said the Gay Straight Alliance had a speaker on Wednesday, a transgender male, whose parents were divorced. While he was out to his mother, he was not out to his father, and had to pick a gown at graduation, which was difficult for him to do.

Following Atkin’s remarks, Blandford representative Terri Garfield asked Hopson whether he had spoken to the seniors.

Hopson replied that Finnie had spoken to them. The seniors had voted in October on the graduation gowns. 53% had voted for no change, 35% had voted to allow students to choose white or blue, 7% had voted for one color, and 7% were ambivalent.

“This year’s class, the majority chose traditional,” Hopson said.

“We should go with their desire for this year,” said Jeff Wyand, Huntington representative.
Diane Dunn of Chester said the people that want to keep it the same have a picture in their mind of what graduation will look like.

Senior class president Anna Pless then asked to address the School Committee. She said the senior class started talking about it in October. She said they’ve now realized that bringing it to the senior class for a vote was not the best idea, which Hopson had also stated at the beginning of the discussion.

“I think you’re right, people have a picture of graduation in their heads. Personally, I think it should all go to one color,” Pless said.

Hopson then suggested the School Committee make a motion before the discussion continued. He said however, any decision would have to be made at the meeting, because seniors were scheduled to be fitted for gowns starting next week.

School Committee chair Michele Crane of Blandford asked for a motion to waive the two meeting rule, which passed unanimously.

Hopson said the first choice would be to allow students to pick which color they would like to wear this year, and choose one color gown for next year.

Crane asked for a motion. Russell representative Tara Balboni then made a motion to change the gowns to one color for this year.

Wyand suggested keeping in mind the school colors of blue and gold.

“When we talked about one color, we assumed it would be blue,” said Pless.

“I feel it’s too late for the seniors. If they can choose the color, that would be good,” said Chester representative Martha Otterbeck.

“I agree with you, Martha. This year, let them choose, and next year, one color,” said Garfield, to which Wyand said he agreed.

Balboni rephrased her motion to move it to one color for this year, and have it be blue.

“I know it’s been blue and white, but the white is see-through. I think you’ll have mostly blue, not many white gowns,” said Huntington representative Kara Rousseau. Others agreed that there have been complaints over time about the white gowns for this reason.

“If you leave it as a choice, then the majority may be blue. Let this be the transition time,” Wyand added.

“The problem is, if you give them a choice, if you’re doing this to protect all students, you have to protect the one or two students who are going to be uncomfortable,” Hopson said.

“At this point, it’s down to a legality. If we make a decision, is it going to put us in a legal position,” asked Wyand.

“If you vote not to, if no one complains, you have no issue. You already have the Gay Straight Alliance who says they’re okay. It only takes one student who says they’re uncomfortable,” Hopson said.

A vote was taken on the motion to change the gowns to one color, blue, for the June, 2017 graduation. The motion carried 7 to 3, with Dunn, Garfield, and Otterbeck voting against it.

After the meeting, Atkin gathered with five of the twenty members of the Gay Straight Alliance who had come to the School Committee to support him. The students said they were surprised at the outcome of the meeting, and were not expecting the decision, but were happy about it.

Anna Pless said she thought that the School Committee had made the right decision; however, she said it will be hard for her to discuss it with the senior class. They have a meeting scheduled for next week.

“I’m happy that the right decision has been made. This is something they will not stop talking about,” Pless said.

Copyright 2017 The Westfield News

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