Will Dracut High’s graduation tradition be changed?


DRACUT — For as long as anyone can remember, it has been a tradition for graduating Dracut High School seniors to wear different colored robes at their commencement. Girls don white, boys don blue.

But will that change now to accommodate students who are gender non-conforming, who don’t identify with either gender?

Superintendent of Schools Steven Stone is directing Dracut High School Principal Richard Manley to put together a group starting in September that will include students, administrators and teachers who graduated from Dracut High. At Monday’s School Committee meeting, Stone said he will be looking for a recommendation from the new group. Other districts he’s looked at have switched to one color for all students.

School Committee member Sabrina Heisey initially brought this to the committee after reading “Guidance for Massachusetts Public Schools Creating a Safe and Supportive School Environment,” a set of guidelines released several years ago by the state. The guide is available on the Massachusetts Department of Elementary & Secondary Education website.

“We have updated our school policy to include gender identity as a thing we do not discriminate against, so there is a policy in place that says we’re not going to discriminate if somebody identifies as male, female or other, including non-binary or gender queer individuals who do attend our schools,” Heisey said. “So it’s not just about boys wear this color, girls wear this color. It’s really about there’s an entire third subgroup that has a spectrum that has no color.”

Heisey on Wednesday said she has faith in the students, describing them as a “refreshing, thought-out generation of young people.”

“I have no concerns about what they’re going to come up with and I hope that they will want to make sure that they’re in an inclusive environment,” she said. “I think traditions can be wonderful, but there can be times when you have to change them. It’s about embracing life.”

Stone has said he’s proud of the administration’s efforts to support students living with gender identity issues. On Monday he recommended that the matter of the robes be addressed at the school level.

“I think that the students involved, the administration, and teachers should be the ones guiding what direction that the district goes in terms of graduation robes,” he said. “That it’s not a matter of policy, but a matter of the administration of the high school.”

School Committee 1st Vice Chair Betsy Murphy said she had mixed feelings about it but wants to know what students think.

“It’s not about us,” Murphy said.

Caroline McIntosh, an engineer, spoke in favor of changing the robes to a single color.

“The boys and girls wearing different colored robes is just an archaic tradition that’s got no place in 2019,” she told committee members. “Most colleges and universities use different colors of robes for bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate degrees to differentiate people who’ve achieved higher degrees.”

McIntosh said a girl graduating from Dracut High School has earned the same diploma as a boy. Why, she asked, would they wear a different colored robe? McIntosh said she feels it diminishes the girl’s achievements subconsciously because different colors usually represent higher or lower degrees.

School Committee Chair Allison Volpe on Tuesday said the committee wants more input from students but hasn’t been decided yet how that information will be collected.

“Dracut is very traditional in that they’ve always had white and they’ve always had blue, but we’re a community of caring in our schools,” Volpe said. “We’re focusing on inclusiveness and diversity, so I think it’s important for us to be mindful of the changing times and reach out to the students and see what their thoughts around this are. … We said we’re going to do a deeper dive.”

Heisey has also brought forward a suggestion to change the wording of Homecoming’s king/queen court to be more inclusive. The matter was sent to the Policy Subcommittee most recently made up of Volpe and Murphy. Murphy at Monday’s meeting said they don’t feel comfortable getting involved in those decisions.

“We decided to take no action on this,” Volpe said on Tuesday. “It could be included as part of a larger discussion on inclusiveness and the crown is decided by the graduating class.”

Heisey on Wednesday said she’s not upset no action was taken.

“There’s no action to take. This is a practice, not a policy,” Heisey said. “We’re talking about people who don’t fit either category, recognizing that our policy says we don’t discriminate, and having practices to match that.”

Amaris Castillo: @AmarisCastillo on Twitter