Palm Beach County public schools ban gender-based graduation caps and gowns

The Palm Beach Post | by Andrew Marra | February 4, 2021

Palm Beach County’s public high schools have been banned from having male and female seniors wear differently colored caps and gowns at graduation ceremonies, a long tradition that officials say conflicts with the rights of transgender and non-binary students.

School district administrators prohibited the practice Wednesday after a years-long campaign by School Board member Erica Whitfield, who argued that forcing students to choose a gown color based on their gender identity provokes wrenching internal and family conflicts.

Most of the county’s 23 traditional public high schools have already dropped the practice and use a single gown color for all students. But the district said four schools still planned this year to have male and female students to wear different colors: Jupiter High, Lake Worth High, Pahokee High and Royal Palm Beach High.

At those schools, all students now will wear gowns of the same color in future graduation ceremonies, district officials said.

“The way we were currently functioning was a violation of some of the [school] board’s policies,” Schools Superintendent Donald Fennoy said at Wednesday’s school board meeting.

A directive sent Wednesday to school principals states that the practice of gender-based graduation colors “does violate the provisions in school board policies, the SDPBC Family and Student Handbook, and the School District of Palm Beach County’s LGBTQ+ Critical Support Guide.”

“In addition, it violates state and federal law,” the directive stated.

Whitfield celebrated the change as a significant victory for transgender and non-binary students.

“I think it’s all about what we can do to not hurt kids,” she said. “For the kids that it impacts, it’s huge.”

School Board member Erica Whitfield.
School Board member Erica Whittfield. MEGHAN McCARTHY/ Palm Beach Post

Whitfield pointed out that some students privately change their gender identity without telling their families, forcing them to pick a gown color that either conflicts with their personal identity or outs themselves to family members involuntarily.

Other students do not consider themselves male or female and do not want to be forced to choose between the two gown colors, she added.

“What if you don’t see yourself as male or female, what gowns do you use?” Whitfield said. “For those kids it’s a pretty tough day.”

Still, she said some schools were reluctant to abandon a long-standing tradition.

Some administrators said their schools had no transgender students, so relinquishing the practice would accomplish little, she recalled. Other schools said letting students choose whichever color they wished would alleviate most problems.

But Whitfield pointed out administrators are unlikely to be aware of all the students on their campus who may be reexamining their gender identity or keeping a change private.

“The general theme is ‘We don’t have any trans kids, we don’t have any non-binary kids’,” she said, “which is not true, they just don’t talk about it.”

Whitfield said her push for the change came from her conversations with students at Lake Worth High School, one of the schools that continues to require students to choose a gown color.

Some students there dreaded the decision and the conflicts it would provoke.

“I think we have to realize that kids were actually being hurt by this,” she said. “It’s a big deal to kind of be forced to come out.”

After lobbying quietly for a change for years, Whitfield presented the issue to her school board colleagues in November 2019.

Because the pandemic canceled last year’s graduation ceremonies, a final decision was postponed.

Last week, Whitfield broached the issue again with district leaders and the school board’s legal team, who decided that forcing students to choose a color based on their gender raises legal concerns.

Fennoy said Wednesday that district leaders had “contacted all the schools to make sure we were in alignment” with the new directive.

Photo: 2015 Lake Worth High graduation Friday, May 16, 2015, at South Florida Fairgrounds in Royal Palm Beach. Bill Ingram

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