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Williamsville wonders: What role should gender play in high school traditions?

The homecoming king and queen in Williamsville could lose their crowns. And the days of separating male and female graduates at two district high schools with different cap and gown colors could be coming to an end.

Not everyone is happy about it.

The rumored end to the traditions in one of the largest school districts in New York spurred a protest petition signed by 800 people and a response to parents, emphasizing that the school district hasn't made any decision.

Any change is a long way off, Superintendent Scott G. Martzloff said, but society is evolving and the district doesn't want to force students to conform to gender norms that don't fit.

"We want to keep the discussion going, make people feel comfortable to be part of that discussion and not have people think that decisions have already been premade by the school district," Martzloff said in an interview.

Local education leaders say they aren't aware of any other districts in the area confronting this question of gender identity and school tradition, though districts have tried to meet the needs of all students in locker rooms and bathrooms.

Statewide and nationally, however, a number of school districts and colleges have made gender-neutral changes to offer one graduation gown color, for example, or to allow voting for homecoming royalty instead of king and queen.

Some critics object to what they consider bowing to the wishes of a politically correct few, but school officials and people who work with LGBTQ teens say it's a matter of welcoming diversity and making all students feel comfortable.

"I think there's room at the table for everybody," said Joseph O'Donnell, interim executive director of Gay and Lesbian Youth Services of Western New York.

On May 4, someone identified as David Moore created a petition on the GoPetition site titled "WCSD Bring Back the Homecoming King and Queen."

Moore stated that Martzloff and the school district had ended Williamsville's homecoming king and queen tradition, without input from students.

"We, the undersigned, call on the Williamsville Central School District administration to reverse the decision or hold a vote," Moore wrote.

Word of the petition quickly spread through social media. As of Tuesday, 818 people had signed. They include Matthew, from Williamsville, who wrote, "We shall not yield our traditions on the basis of a offended minority," and Steve, from Getzville, who wrote, "Honestly grow up if you have a problem with king and queen."

Administrators took notice. On May 10, Martzloff emailed district parents and others to respond to the petition and to what he described as rumors about new graduation gown policies.

"Please hear this message and take it to heart: no changes have been made – or even formally contemplated – by any of our individual administrators or the district as a whole," he wrote, according to a copy provided to The Buffalo News.

Martzloff said high school principals and others have started talking to students who, in good faith, relayed their personal experiences and views of the traditions.

This started around January, when a mother of a graduating South High School senior contacted Principal Keith Boardman to raise concerns about the school's practice of assigning caps and gowns based on gender. He said that although the practice of having boys wear blue gowns and girls wear white is "steeped in tradition," the school was ready to discuss a change.

The district isn't ready to act, Martzloff wrote in the email, but any change would come only "through a process we agree gives voice to any and all members" of the district.

In an interview, the superintendent said dividing students into traditional, rigid gender categories can make some uncomfortable.

Transgender students, for example, don't identify with their birth sex. Gender nonconforming students may not be expressly male or female.

"We want to create as respectful an environment as possible for all students," Martzloff said.

That can conflict with the homecoming and graduation traditions in place at Williamsville and many other high schools – and colleges – across the country.

At homecoming, students typically vote from among a group of nominees for a male king, a female queen and other members of a court.

During graduation ceremonies, many high schools through formal policy or unwritten tradition sort students by gender. At Williamsville North, boys wear green and girls wear yellow-gold, though at East, all graduates wear red.

"It's very natural for a student to say, 'Well, I don't want to wear a white gown. I want something else. I want something different. I don't subscribe to that gender,' " Martzloff said.

Organizations that represent school boards, districts and superintendents here say they're unaware of any local districts, aside from Williamsville, taking on the question of balancing tradition with evolving gender perspectives.

An online search finds school districts in Montana, Maryland, Texas and, in New York, New Rochelle and Putnam County, among others, have switched from gender-specific to monochromatic graduation gowns recently. For homecoming, schools including Purdue University in Indiana and Stony Brook University have switched to gender-neutral student courts.

South's Boardman said the high school did explore whether it could change the practice for caps and gowns for this month's graduation, but it ran into too many hurdles to make that happen so soon. However, he did say a handful of students have requested permission in recent years to wear blue instead of white, or vice versa.

Boardman said he doesn't ask the student why and that he's approved every request.

"Our goal is to do what is right," he said.

In Williamsville, nothing is changing for graduation ceremonies this month nor for homecoming in the fall. The earliest anything could change, Martzloff said, is graduation in 2020.

With the homecoming court, the district will weigh whether there's an alternative label that can be used, among other options, he said.

With gowns, students may get to choose any color they want, or the district could assign just one color or opt for no gowns at all – or keep the status quo, Martzloff said.

Cheryl Gelder, co-president of Williamsville East's Parent Teacher Student Association chapter, has three sons who graduated from East and a fourth who will graduate next year. She said she's open to any changes that are more inclusive and that having her sons and their fellow graduates wear red caps and gowns has worked well.

"It's one color – they all represent East," Gelder said.

Opponents say it's important to preserve traditions that bring the student body together. People who favor changing the practices, or at least having a conversation about it, say it's a matter of whether schools take away choice from students or provide them a choice.

"It's nothing to be scared of," said O'Donnell, of the Gay and Lesbian Youth Services of Western New York.

Even as tradition retains its hold on many school districts, some students are finding a way to express their individuality, advocates said.

O'Donnell said his organization each spring provides multicolored mortarboard tassels to high school and college students who are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender.

This year, through Monday, 152 students had requested a tassel.

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