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For graduation, VUHS seniors opt for ‘morality’ over tradition

VERGENNES — Since the school’s founding in 1959, Vergennes Union High School graduations have divided its senior classes by gender, assigning white robes to girls and blue robes to boys and requiring them to enter the ceremony from different sides of the school gym.
After a January prompt from VUHS Principal Stephanie Taylor, a series of discussions on that tradition, and two votes, the members of the VUHS class of 2015 decided to change the final ritual of their high school career.
This June, both girls and boys will wear blue and enter together from the rear of the gym, arranged alphabetically. No gender distinction will be made.
The final vote on Jan. 30 was 46-22 in favor of a unified approach, with the all-blue look a big winner on the secondary question of what color the seniors should wear.
Class officers said two issues were paramount in the decision and the process of making it.
First, most voted for the unified look because they wanted to protect any members of the class — or future classes — who are transgendered or are challenged by their gender identity.
Tia Hunt, a class representative to the VUHS board, supported the change. 
“It didn’t really matter to me which color I graduated in as long as my peers around me were accepted and were feeling OK in the way they graduated,” Hunt said. “It was more the morality of the situation, the idea of accepting and opening doors for everyone.”
Secondly, most appreciated that their principal allowed them to make the decision. Class treasurer Elan Hugo, who supported the blue-and-white approach for its tradition and aesthetics, said the class of 2015 is close-knit and capable of choosing well.
“I feel like we’re a class that values each other’s opinions a lot, and don’t want people to feel left out,” Hugo said. “And if we did choose the traditional method, I don’t think anyone would have been offended if someone wanted to walk with the boys, walk in blue. If someone wanted to walk in white, I think we’re really accepting to those around us.”
CHOICE OFFERED
Taylor said she brought the issue to the class’s attention in part because of an experience during her six years as an assistant principal at U-32 High School in East Montpelier.
There, an undergraduate student was transgendered, and school officials did not want the student’s future graduation to present an unwelcome or potentially dangerous atmosphere. U-32 made the switch, Taylor said, and hesitant to mandate the change, she decided to raise the question with the VUHS class of 2015.
“I said it’s a lovely tradition and traditions are traditions, but could we possibly be unintentionally creating an unsafe climate for some students who are transgendered or struggling with their gender identity,” Taylor said. “I thought it might be time to think about this.”
Taylor met with the class officers in late January, and class President K.C. Ambrose said the officers concluded the full class needed to be involved.
“We decided it wasn’t right for us to make a decision, because we would be walking with 80 other kids,” Ambrose said. “I think they should have a say as well, and I think that’s what Ms. Taylor wanted. She gave us the decision whether to keep it or change it, and I thought that was very nice of her.”
As cohesive as the officers say the class is, the first vote, held in the next-to-last week of January, did not go completely smoothly. It offered the choices of the traditional approach, all-blue robes or all-white robes, and ended in a 25-25 tie between traditional and all-blue. Some feelings might have been bruised.
“There was a lot of controversy and strong feelings about it,” Hunt said.
PROCESS REBOOT
A paper vote to be held in morning meetings that Friday was scheduled, but then put off when driver education teacher Sandy Chicoine suggested if students had more information about gender identity it might help them decide.
“A teacher in our school asked it to be postponed because they thought it would be a good idea to have a little bit more education about transgender and gender-queer (gender-queers identify as neither male or female), at least have those definitions given to us,” Hunt said.
The class met as a group on Tuesday, Jan. 27, to discuss the question, with school-based clinician Tom Fontana earning praise for moderating the meeting. 
“He stood up and spoke and was completely unbiased,” Hunt said. “He did a really good job, and pretty much gave us the definition and said no matter what side you’re on you need to respect the other side.”  
Ambrose, who said she voted for the all-blue option, said it was still at times a difficult meeting.
“It was a very touchy subject,” she said. “There were people who were really strong with the traditional. They’ve always wanted to graduate in this certain color. And then you have other people, they can see all the schools around us are starting to change to one color. They’re realizing how people are feeling when they either have to come out and make this decision, whether they’re going to walk with the boys or walk with the girls or wear a certain color.”
The topic was further discussed during their morning meetings and in informal gatherings leading up to the Friday vote, which favored the change by the more than 2-1 margin.
CLASS UNITY
Despite the disagreements, the class officers insist the class of 2015 will remain close-knit.
Hugo said he accepted the decision and that his class has always valued its diversity.
“It’s OK to stand out, to have different views and opinions,” Hugo said.
From the other side of the vote, Hunt agreed.
“We’re definitely a really close class,” Hunt said. “No matter what walk of life you’re from, everybody in our class is close and connected, which is really cool.”
Ambrose said the decision will make the class even more inclusive.
“I definitely feel our school is a safe place for kids, and having this change just helps even more, for kids to know it’s OK if they are different,” Ambrose said.
Taylor offered more evidence for how the class operates. One member is autistic, but regularly joins peers in school activities, and the class dedicated its annual charitable walk-a-thon to Camp Kaleidoscope, which as part of Starksboro’s Common Ground Center offers programs to children on the autism spectrum.
“You have a reputation for inclusion, and you were supporting autism and a camp that meets those needs because of a student in your class,” Taylor said. “That student has always been part of the class and not separate.”
As well as being inclusive, the class of 2015 also prides itself on being productive, Hunt said.
“Even people who didn’t favor the decision still value that we’re a class who takes action and gets stuff done,” Hunt said. “When we were making the decision I heard a lot of teachers, even teachers who weren’t our advisers, say you guys are the class that plows the way.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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