For the first time in more than a decade, Helena High School graduates might not wear gender-specific caps and gowns to their commencement ceremony this year.
At every Helena High commencement since at least 2007, most girls have worn white and most boys have worn burgundy caps and gowns as they received their diplomas.
But a handful of student leaders and other members of the Helena High Class of 2019 hope to see that change, according to school district Superintendent Tyler Ream.
Noting that society is becoming increasingly divided over a variety of issues ranging from religion to politics to sexual orientation, Ream said the students are pushing for all Helena High graduates to wear the same color at their commencement to send the message that “we are one.”
“When kids bring forward ideas to consider, it’s our responsibility to give them the consideration they deserve,” Ream said. “ … I applaud our students for raising this. They see a lot of divisions in our world, and they see those divisions as being hurtful.”
All Helena High graduates wore burgundy caps and gowns as far back as 1998, Ream said, but there may have been a time when the two colors were alternated.
Helena High Principal Steve Thennis aims to meet with every member of the senior class to discuss the possibility of returning to a single color, said Ream, who will have the final say on any decisions that are made.
“We don’t have a definitive timeline on the decision as we are focusing on the student discussions at this point,” Ream said.
Officials have not yet decided what color the graduates would wear if the change is made, Ream said. Though some families have already ordered caps and gowns, he said, “We are also working with the grad robe vendor to explore what options may be available.”
“If the decision is made, we’d have to work very closely with Jostens to make sure families aren’t bearing the burden of this by any means,” he said. “That wouldn’t be acceptable to me.”
The proposal to return to a single color has received a mixed response from students, parents and others in the community.
Debbie Benton, a parent of a Helena High senior, sees the proposed change as an attempt to force pro-transgender views on nontransgender students.
“It’s totally wrong, in my opinion. I feel like that’s forcing them to go that direction to conform to what they’re doing, and that’s not OK,” she said. “ … I think that these kids that have worked so hard to graduate should be able to wear the color that was intended.”
Helena High senior Savanah Mook said students should be able to choose whether to wear burgundy or white, and it would be unfair to force all of them to wear the same color. The parents of some Helena High seniors wore burgundy or white when they graduated from the school years ago, she said, and "keeping tradition alive in our family and our community is important."
For fellow senior Evan Rankin, the sea of burgundy and white is "the classic picture of a Helena High graduation." He said he does not believe officials are listening to students who have suggested other ways to maintain that tradition without involving gender, such as alternating the two colors among individual graduates or rows of students.
"The students provided many alternatives to try to preserve our unique graduation ceremony, but our voices were not heard," Rankin said.
Helena High senior Grace Lawlor, who is in favor of a single color, said she believes it's time to start a new tradition at Helena High.
“For some students Helena High is the only place they feel safe expressing who they are. As classmates we should be supporting each other and doing our best to allow people to feel comfortable with themselves on graduation day,” she said. “Our administration is making a very progressive decision that is right in line with the changing times of our country."
Helena High senior Regan Read said some students do not fall under either the male or female gender category, and "there are immediate and serious consequences to segregating students by gender."
"There are transgender students in this building who would have been forced to wear the wrong color, which, while not being by a long shot the worst thing trans students have to face at this school, is still a degrading and unfair reminder of their place in the world," Read said. "Even if there were transgender students who would have been allowed to pick the right color, merely being in that situation forcibly outs them to potentially abusive students, faculty and families."
The American Civil Liberties Union of Montana "fully supports the student-led effort at Helena High School to eliminate gender-specific graduation gowns," said Executive Director Caitlin Borgmann.
“Every student has the right to learn in a safe and accepting school environment. Creating gender inclusive atmospheres in our schools is an important step to ensure that all students can live openly and thrive as their authentic selves," Borgmann said.
Since the request for a single color came from Helena High, Ream said, officials are not considering any changes to the caps and gowns worn by Capital High School’s graduates. Most girls wear yellow and most boys wear brown caps and gowns at the Capital High commencement.