Ward Melville gown controversy continues at BOE meeting

Ward Melville gown controversy continues at BOE meeting

Student representative Brandon Cea discusses Ward Melville's graduation gown controversy during a board meeting. Photo by Andrea Paldy

By Andrea Paldy

To some, tradition is at stake. To others, the issue is about inclusion and sensitivity. Yet another group wonders, why the fuss about a graduation gown?

And, that sums up the furor that continues following an announcement of a new, gender-neutral, green gown and gold stole for Ward Melville High School seniors. Proposed as a symbol of inclusion and sensitivity, the decision has instead ignited division. 

Board President William Connors weighs in on Ward Melville’s graduation gown controversy at a board meeting. Photo by Andrea Paldy

Two weeks ago, the news that female graduates would no longer march in gold and their male counterparts green, produced a flurry of activity on social media, petitions and protests.

Last week’s school board meeting offered yet another venue for people to express opposition and support about the topic, bringing out speaker after speaker.

“I could not care less what color gown my daughter wears,” said parent Christine Gacovino, whose daughter graduates in June.

The mother said she was most upset by what she saw as the underlying sentiment of those opposed to the change. The reaction indicated “that we have a serious problem with sensitivity in this district,” she said.“Sensitivity and acceptance are so important.” Senior Robert Brando said that for a decision that was meant to unite and include, he feels “anything but included.”

It is “more than just the color of the cloth,” said Brandon Cea, a senior and student representative to the board.

“The issue has come to represent tradition, the rights of the LGTBQ community and the perceived lack of communication between students and administration,” Cea said in a prepared statement.

Ward Melville High School principal Alan Baum, who was in attendance at the meeting, laid out his rationale for the change in a March 2 letter: “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 from how they identify.”

The prevailing sentiment of parents and students speaking against the new gowns was that they were not “anti-anything.” They simply wanted to honor tradition and democracy, they said. As well, there should have been more discussion with students and the community about the change, they said.

In the wake of the protests, Cea told the school board that the student leadership had met to “establish a new tradition, a tradition where we are Patriots.” Ward Melville students, he said, are proposing the establishment of a student council and a schedule of town hall meetings, so students can express opinions and ask questions about school policy.

“Together, we need to understand the issues on both sides and not allow meaningful conversation to be lost.”

— Brandon Cea

“Together, we need to understand the issues on both sides and not allow meaningful conversation to be lost,” Cea said.

Speaking on behalf of the school board, President William Connors acknowledged that while Baum’s intentions were good, his “rollout” could have been improved through better communication and community involvement.

“The process for these types of decisions will be addressed and solidified to assure that this type of incident does not occur again,” Connors said.

Baum has arranged for female students to retake their senior pictures in the green gowns they will wear for graduation. The photography company has agreed to do the pictures without charging the students or the district.

Superintendent Cheryl Pedisich was conciliatory.

“It disheartens me to see our school district divided,” she said. “I never want to see that. Our students are precious to us. They are so incredibly valued.

“I’m sorry that the students didn’t have a voice. They should have, absolutely, but now is the time for this district to move forward. I’m imploring you to come together and move forward, because that’s what we need to do.”

This version corrects a previously inaccurate statement. Ward Melville High School Principal Alan Baum did attend the meeting.

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