A break with tradition intended to foster unity at Ward Melville High School has instead been met with division among its students, sparking a mass demonstration, online petitions, sharp criticisms, and igniting a heated local debate about how to best accommodate its transgender students.

Approximately 100 students staged a walkout at the East Setauket school on March 1 in protest of its decision to introduce multi-colored, gender-neutral graduation gowns at its upcoming commencement ceremony this June. Traditionally, girls wear gold gowns and boys don green. The school’s new graduation gowns are universally green, with the high school’s emblem emblazoned on a gold stole.

Principal Alan Baum posted a letter addressed to parents, guardians and students on the school’s homepage the following day outlining the reasoning behind the wardrobe change, characterizing it as a move toward unity, and citing the school district’s upcoming 50th anniversary, students who may feel uncomfortable wearing colors at odds with their gender identity, and the progressive leanings of the district, school and community.

“As many of you are aware, we have made the decision to celebrate a theme of unity during our graduation ceremony,” he wrote. “This year, as we mark the 50th anniversary of the Three Village Central School District, we are focusing on honoring the traditions of the past, while building new traditions for our future.

“In addition to creating a unified senior class, it is our hope that creating a unifying color scheme will eliminate the anxiety that is caused by forcing a young adult to wear a gown that labels them differently than how they identify,” Baum continued. “This decision also reflects the progressive nature of our district, our high school and our community. Through the use of the unified gowns, we are no longer separating our students by gender; rather, we will be promoting a more inclusive practice at graduation.”

Baum’s letter did little to quell strong sentiments on both sides of the issue, however. Students launched online petitions both in favor and against the gown revision that quickly garnered hundreds of signatories accompanied by charged comments, with new remarks added daily since their collective inception.

“For the seniors on graduation day, it is important for us to have different color gowns to walk in,” states a petition against the universal garbs started by student Max Gironda, which had attracted 1,000 new gown opponents as of March 8. “This means having the girls wear gold and the boys wear green, and if there are people that identify as a gender other than the one that they received at birth, then they should choose which color they prefer. This has been a tradition for all of the classes before us to wear their school colors one last time and this should not be changed.”

“i’m signing this because the new gowns are bullshit,” wrote one opponent.

“The idea of a one color gown for the 4 transgendered is ridiculous. The reason for changing the gowns is absurd,” complained another.

“Liberals already destroyed our School District,” slammed yet another. “This is just the icing on the cake. I support all of the kids that stand up to this moronic politically correct school board.”

“There has been a large dispute over whether the altering of Ward Melville’s traditional cap and gown color sequence is justified,” explains a contrasting petition in favor of “Same Colored Gowns” started by student Brianna LaSita and two others, which had about 700 supporters as of press time. “While some of the points are understandable, many of the comments made about this issue are truly appalling and archaic.

“Tradition, as many emphasize, is not always right,” it continues. “Allowing everyone to feel comfortable and happy on their graduation day is what is ultimately important. These colors should in no way divide us or box us in to ideas we do not agree with. We should all graduate as a united class, accepting our differences and embracing what makes us a diverse population of people in order to improve our society as a whole. And we can only do this by accepting everyone for who they are and respecting their discomforts.”

Students and others on both sides of the gown switcheroo also took to social media to vent.

David Kilmnick, CEO of nonprofit The LGBT Network, praised Ward Melville High School’s decision to introduce the gender-neutral gowns, expressing his hope during a March 3 press conference at the group’s center in Woodbury that more school districts would follow its lead in the future.

“Ward Melville High School, just like [Paul D.] Schreiber High School in Port Washington last year, is making the decision that graduation will be a safe and inclusive place for all of its students,” he said.

The LGBT Network works with 112 of Long Island’s 124 school districts to combat bullying, and helps establish and maintain gay-straight alliance programs, among other initiatives.

LGBT, and transgender youth especially, comprise the most at-risk group for suicide, mental illness, addiction, bullying, and violence due to their sexual orientation and gender identification, according to multiple national and international studies, including those from nonprofits GLSEN (Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network) and Human Rights Campaign, and Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.

This community faces significant challenges within the school environment, with a report titled “The 2015 National School Climate Survey” by GLSEN finding, among other revelations, that nearly six in 10 LGBTQ students reported feeling unsafe at school because of their sexual orientation and four in 10 reported feeling unsafe at school because of how they expressed their gender.

“What we hear from many transgender youth who we work with and serve is that graduation is supposed to be a time of celebration, however, what unfortunately happen for those kids, it becomes a time of anxiety,” explained Kilmnick. “They worry that if they wear the color gown that matches their true identity will they be beaten up or harassed or called names at their graduation.

“And that’s reality,” he added. “This isn’t about political correctness.”

Kilmnick believes Ward Melville High School’s student walkout exemplifies a growing divide on Long Island, and especially within Suffolk County, between those who espouse progressive viewpoints and those who lean more conservatively. He characterized the protest and some of the reported remarks made at it as a “hate stance,” and laid the blame of its legitimization at the feet of President Trump, who issued a controversial executive order in February rescinding federal guidelines implemented under the Obama administration that, among other provisions, protected transgender students’ right to use public school bathrooms that best fit their gender identity.

“I do believe by walking out and shouting anti-transgender comments and slogans that that definitely is a hate stance that they took,” Kilmnick told reporters.

“It’s another example that people follow what our president says,” he blasted. “So when he attacks Mexicans, when he attacks immigrants, when he attacks women, or doesn’t mention Jews in the Holocaust, we’re seeing the repercussions from community to community and now school to school.

“Now is a time when we need unification more than ever,” added Kilmnick.

A request for comment for this story from parents who are members of a popular Ward Melville-related Facebook group went unanswered, as did a requests left at the school, Paul D. Schreiber High School and Island Trees High School, which also instituted gender-neutral graduation gowns.

One Ward Melville High School parent, who asked their name be left out to “play it safe” and any avert potential backlash, shared the following with the Press:

“For us, this (the drama) really wasn’t ever about any legislation, it was about privilege, it was kids annoyed they weren’t getting their way, mad they didn’t get a say and their parents supporting them instead of teaching them why it was such an important change.

“The only people who didn’t show support were the seniors (and their parents) who were ‘upset’ that they weren’t wearing the usual gown,” the parent continued. “And that really came down to two things, the girls had already taken their senior pics in the gold gowns, and, no one was told (it leaked out before admin sent a letter).

“Eventually some ugliness came out of it towards our transgender kids but I can honestly say, that if this was done at the beginning of the year, I truly don’t believe there would’ve been any issue,” added the parent. “It’s a shame because it’s certainly created a divide now but the large majority of us are so proud of the decision and welcome it with open arms.”

Featured Photo: Ward Melville High School’s decision to roll out ‘unified’ gender-neutral graduation gowns sparked a student walkout, online petitions, criticisms, and ignited a debate about how it accommodates its transgender students. (Photos: Ward Melville High School)

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