Public high schools in Palm Beach County can no longer give different colored caps and gowns based on a student’s gender at graduation.
While most schools had done away with the tradition, three of the 25 schools in the county were still clinging to assigning boys and girls different colored caps and gowns. A fourth had students choose which color they wanted.
The decision was made at the Palm Beach County School Board’s Feb. 3 meeting, followed by an email to all principals by Superintendent Donald Fennoy.
“I was just beyond happy,” said Erica Whitfield, who represents District 4 for the school board. “I felt like something should have been done a long time ago, and the fact we were able to do it for kids was awesome.”
When Whitfield was first elected to the School Board six years ago, she was invited to a meeting of LGBT students and allies at Lake Worth High School. Their biggest concern at that time was allowing transgender kids to use the bathroom they were most comfortable with, but they also brought up that students were being assigned different colored caps and gowns according to their gender.
She thought the practice was antiquated and didn’t even realize schools were still doing it. She figured she would bring it up at the next meeting as a discussion item — a “cakewalk of an issue,” she said.
She was wrong.
People were determined to keep the policy. The excuses from the administration varied: it’s tradition, we already ordered our caps and gowns and can’t change it now, or claiming there were no gender binary or transgender kids at their school.
“Even if you don’t know if you have transgender kids, you do,” Whitfield said.
Over the years, many schools have done away with the two colors and simply had students wear all the same color cap and gown, or assigned colors according to the last name to show off their school colors. But in the past, boys and girls have been separated into different aisles, told that boys had to wear slacks and girls had to wear a skirt or dress, and even having girls wear all white on graduation day.
Amanda Canete, the youth program director at Compass, remembers graduating high school in 2004 and wearing a different color cap and gown from the boys. Almost 20 years later, she was hearing that it was still continuing at local high schools.
“It was something that adults wanted to hold onto and it’s not about them — it’s about the students graduating and they should be the ones feeling comfortable because it’s their event,” she said. “Gender should not be a factor in what students wear to celebrate the accomplishments of graduating high school.”
Great news @pbcsd tonight. Our graduates will no longer need to choose a graduation gown color based on gender. This gives greater equality for our students, no matter how they identify. @PBCHRC @CompassCenter #LGBTIQ pic.twitter.com/Jrh0KbhriK— Erica Whitfield (@Erica4schools) February 4, 2021
Determined to do right by students, starting in 2019, Whitfield reached out to the principals of the schools who still had the two-color rule. Some refused to change their policy, but others were open to hearing from her. This included Dr. James Campbell at Seminole Ridge Community High School in Loxahatchee.
A principal at the school for a decade, he explained that boys wore silver gowns and girls wore red — however, they weren’t strict about it if someone chose the other color. They were separated into two aisles so that there would be two blocks of color. Years ago, they did away with the pants for boys and dresses for girls dress code, and simply asked them to wear dark clothing and shoes under their gowns.
With talk of the cap and gown change, he reached out to Whitfield in 2019 about the school’s proposal to allow students to choose whichever color they wanted. However, she noted that it was still putting pressure on non-binary students and might be outing them. After a lengthy discussion, he said he had a better understanding of the issue.
Gowns had already been ordered for that year’s graduating class, so he hosted a meeting with the juniors about what they would like to see happen for their graduation in 2020. They voted on having one color: red. There was no in-person graduation due to the pandemic, so 2021 may be the first time the new red caps and gowns will be implemented at graduation.
“We love graduation, it’s a big deal, but we love it because it’s a huge moment for them and their families. I wanted them to have the opportunity to make the decision of how it was going to be handled,” Campbell said.
After the School Board made the decision official during its Feb. 3 meeting, an email was sent out to the schools by the superintendent. Three schools still had the rule — Lake Worth, Jupiter and Pahokee — and a fourth, Royal Palm Beach High School, said they would allow students to choose whichever of the two colors they wanted.
“It’s not up to interpretation anymore. It’s something that will be required,” Canete said. “I’m not sure why the schools wanted to die on that hill, but I'm glad that the language is clear that that won’t be acceptable anymore.”
Since the official mandate, Whitfield has received positive feedback.
“I had a few people who said they couldn’t believe the policy existed in the first place,” she said. “It doesn’t make everything better for us, especially for our non-binary kids … but it’s going to make this one thing a lot better.”