Saturday, December 13, 2014

FHS Principal Peter Light's letter to the parents and community

December 2014

FHS Community,

Last evening, Fox News ran a segment regarding ongoing discussions at FHS about moving to gender neutral robes for our commencement ceremony. The purpose of this communication is to clarify the issues and discussion process in which our school is currently engaged so that all members of our educational community including students, parents, alumni and involved citizens can develop a deeper understanding of the issue and how the school is working through it with our students.

This is not a discussion brought about by a minority opinion of Franklin High School students who wish to impose personal views on the majority of students as may be portrayed or misunderstood inside and outside of our school. Instead, this is a discussion that has its foundations in legal, educational and moral issues that our students and community should and deserve to understand.

In 2011, the Massachusetts Legislature, passed An Act Relative to Gender Identity (Chapter 199 of the Acts of 2011). In summary, the act sought to include gender identity as a protected class against discrimination, specifically with regard to access to all aspects of public schools. In essence, beginning July 1, 2012, schools were prohibited from discriminating against students on the basis of gender identity (also included under the law is discrimination on the basis of race, color, sex, religion, national origin or sexual orientation). This was an important piece of legislation in that it sought to further ensure that all students are treated equally within the educational setting.

Subsequent to this legislation being enacted, the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) released an advisory entitled Guidance for Massachusetts Public Schools: Creating a Safe and Supportive School Environment. In this advisory, the DESE discussed in detail the pertinent issues for public schools and recommended steps schools and districts should take in order to adhere to the new law.

In the advisory, the DESE clarified specific issues that high schools may face in responding to the need to adopt gender neutral practices. Some issues described discuss access to restrooms, locker rooms and treatment of student records. The document also includes high school-specific examples relative to school-based activities. Specifically, the DESE advises that
“As a general matter, schools should evaluate all gender-based policies, rules, and practices and maintain only those that have a clear and sound pedagogical purpose. Gender-based policies,rules, and practices can have the effect of marginalizing, stigmatizing, and excluding students,whether they are gender non conforming or not. In some circumstances, these policies, rules,and practices may violate federal and state law. For these reasons, schools should consider alternatives to them.”
The DESE also offers a specific example within the document:
“For example, some schools require students to wear gender-based garb for graduation or have gender-based dress codes for prom, special events, and daily attire. Schools should eliminate gendered policies and practices such as these. For example, one school that previously had blue graduation gowns for boys and white ones for girls switched to blue gowns for all graduates. The school also changed its gender-based dress code for the National Honor Society ceremony, which had required girls to wear dresses.”
As the Principal of the school, it is my obligation to act with the best interest of our students in mind ensuring that every student has the opportunity to be included in the culture of the school, and to ensure that my decisions are consistent with applicable state and federal laws as well as district policies. Based on the guidance from the DESE and the specific example provided within the document, it is clear that the issue of Franklin students wearing blue or white dress on the basis of sex or gender identity is inconsistent with the intent of the law and runs the risk of alienating students. As such, the school must take action to address this issue.

While there is a legal basis for the school taking action on this issue, there is great educational opportunity afforded to us as a community in teaching our students valuable life lessons. First, that an individual or group can raise an issue, follow process and effect change through rational discourse and communication with appropriate parties (in this case students, faculty and administration of the school). Additionally, we have an opportunity as a community to demonstrate to our students a willingness to seek to understand all facets of an issue, how the issue and proposed resolution can impact others, and work together toward a common goal, despite having begun with an adverse situation.

Graduation attire is clearly an issue that holds a place in our students’ and community’s mind at the moment. Today, I asked a group of students “when you talked to your friends last year around graduation, how many of them told you that they were excited because they were wearing a blue or white gown?” The answer I received… zero. I also asked our students that if we were not currently discussing graduation robes, and I were to ask them to list the top ten things they looked forward to about graduating from FHS, would the color of their robe have made that list? The overwhelming answer.. probably not. Instead, having been through 6 commencements as Principal, four as an assistant principal and having worked as a member of the faculty for 17 years, I believe that our students value things like senior week, all night party, coming together as a class throughout their senior year, and ultimately the memories they have made throughout their four years at FHS.

It is clear that what has been held as a tradition at FHS is about to undergo change. Some of our faculty and students have offered wise opinions that our country has previously held traditions based on race, color, religion and sexual orientation that today we would universally deem inappropriate for the educational environment.

In the 1970’s FHS students wore one color of graduation robe at commencement. At some point thereafter, they wore two. Our students today have an opportunity to work together as a school to determine which tradition FHS will adopt for its next generation of students.

One thing I do know about students at FHS is that for a long time, our school community has worked to create an inclusive environment for all of our students and I believe we have one of the most caring, accepting environments of any high school in the state. Our students in Best Buddies advocate for their peers with disabilities, and a multitude of our student organizations work throughout each year to serve those less fortunate in the school, community and around the world.

We have an opportunity to take a small step that will result in not just some or most students, but every student feeling included and comfortable with who he/she is in our school’s final activity… Graduation. We also have an opportunity to work through the process in a way that values the opinions of all and does not alienate any group. Finally, we have the opportunity to show our students that as a school community, we may not all agree on every issue, but that we can work together to find a solution that we believe benefits our kids and represents our school in a way that reflects all of the pride and passion we always have.

Thank you for your sincere understanding and support of our students as they continue to learn from each other and work toward a solution that meets their needs.


Peter Light

the entrance to the new FHS
the entrance to the new FHS

Note: the only change to Mr Light's text was the switch from an underline to BOLD in one sentence. The underline for internet use indicates a link elsewhere and BOLD in this case was to mark the sentence for emphasis

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