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Maine School’s Plan To Ditch White Grad Gowns For Girls Pits Tradition Against Political Correctness

Foxcroft Academy via BDN
A decision on graduation gown colors for this year's Foxcroft Academy seniors is forthcoming as members of the class of 2019 will have the opportunity to weigh in on possible options.

A plan to discontinue the use of white graduation gowns for female seniors at Foxcroft Academy has sparked a debate among students, alumni and others in the community between those who favor the traditional boys-in-burgundy, girls-in-white garb reflecting school colors and those who think the change eliminates gender bias.

After some Foxcroft Academy seniors objected to the plan calling for all seniors to wear burgundy gowns, the head of school said that members of the class of 2019 will have input before a final decision is made.

Graduation is scheduled for Sunday, June 9, and a decision on the attire could be made next month. A specific timeline and method for reaching a decision are to be determined.

“There’s definitely going to be a change,” Head of School Arnold Shorey said in his office Thursday morning. “We’re working on it together with the senior class. Obviously it’s very important we operate under our mission, vision and guiding principles. In particular, there is a guiding principle that ‘honors human difference as a fundamental part of life.’

“We have an outstanding Civil Rights Team [of students] who brought to our attention, the administration and then the trustees, that we could do a better job under that guiding principle meaning not using a robe to signify someone’s gender. We all agree that made a lot of sense. It seemed like a very small thing that we could do, someone shouldn’t feel uncomfortable being forced to conform to some tradition or practice. So the decision, we thought the best one, was to go all burgundy, a very nice looking robe with a white sash and I announced that to the student body a couple of days ago.”

Following the presentation on Monday when they first learned of the change, many seniors wanted to have a say in the gown decision. Senior Jacob Marsh set up an online petition, which drew more than 1,400 supporters. The petition helped prompt a meeting between students and the administration.

“The issue is we have to operate within our guiding principles and within our mission and vision, so it’s really up to the administration and the trustees, however, I sat down and listened to them,” Shorey said of his meeting with the class of 2019 on Tuesday. Foxcroft Academy, which has always been co-ed, is an independent high school founded in 1823 and today serves as the secondary school for students from the RSU 68 communities of Charleston, Dover-Foxcroft, Monson and Sebec as well as tuition-paying boarding students with many of these pupils from abroad.

“There is some wiggle room, and we are going to talk about it more,” Shorey said. “We’re actually all going to receive some training on that topic and then the seniors will give input to the final decision.”

Marsh said most of the concerns he received from fellow students and alumni were along the lines of tradition and representation.

“Some people were worried about what would be next, if the school changed this, what other changes would be made with input from only one group,” Marsh said. “I also had many others contacting me wanting to know why this happened. I had texts, calls and comments from many past alumni who felt that this change was not what was best for the Foxcroft Academy community. I also had multiple messages from past female alumni who wanted to donate their white gowns if the school was not going to allow the students to order them.

“I never imagined that my petition would gather so much support. I made the petition as a way to show the administration that I and many other seniors felt misrepresented as this change was made by the minority. We felt that the minority should never speak for the majority. I look forward to seeing what the vote decides.”

Shorey praised the way students have approached the issue.

“I have to say this, I am very proud of the seniors,” Shorey said. “The seniors handled themselves very well. They had adult conversations without getting emotional, without getting disrespectful, without being hateful, and as you know in the world we live in that’s rare, so I have some hope for the future. The good thing is we are going to make changes which will kind of reflect that guiding principle of honoring human difference as fundamental to life, but the seniors will have some say in that.”

How the class of 2019 will be involved in the decision-making process is still to be determined, possibilities include a formal vote by the students on graduation gown colors and/or additional meetings to provide administrators with more feedback for them to make a decision.

“It might be a student has a choice in what gown they wear, that is one option, or we go all burgundy,” Shorey said.

Members of the class of 2019 have already purchased their white or burgundy gowns, and the $37 cost includes the mortar board and sash, but refunds will be provided if desired.

Shorey said a gown decision could be made in mid-March. “We have all agreed to receive some training about this topic, and then from that I am going to allow some input and then we will decide,” he said.

“But what that means for the future after that, I’m not sure,” he said. “I’m not sure what the final decision will be, but either way I know one thing, they will be lined up alphabetically instead of by color of robes and then as far as the gown color, we will work that out with the class. The seniors and I have some work to do.

“The important part is we don’t want anyone to be uncomfortable through graduation, so we’re definitely moving forward so that students, for whatever reason, whatever gender they feel comfortable, enjoys graduation with their friends. Really, I think we are talking about very minor things to make that happen.”

“I am very appreciative of our Civil Rights Team who through this whole process have shown a whole lot of courage,” Shorey said. “They opened our eyes, and we are going to stay strong with that, but at the same time listen to our seniors and based on what we talked about make a decision together. I think it’s a great learning opportunity for all of us.”

This story appears through a media sharing agreement with Bangor Daily News.