060817 Lompoc graduation 29.jpg (copy)

In this June 8 file photo, a pair of Lompoc High School graduating seniors walk to their seats during the commencement ceremony at Huyck Stadium. The school is set to change course this year and stop having the students wear different color caps and gowns based on gender, as well as no longer having the students enter the ceremony and sit separately based on gender.

Len Wood, Staff

One of Lompoc High School’s oldest traditions is set to be eliminated this spring, but a group of community members — including some of the school’s students — is not letting it go without a fight.

About a dozen Lompoc High School alumni, students and parents of students attended Tuesday night’s meeting of the Lompoc Unified School District board of education to support three speakers who asked that the board intervene and block a decision made by Lompoc High Principal Paul Bommersbach to have all seniors wear blue caps and gowns, among other changes, at the school’s 2018 commencement ceremony.

The move represents a shift from Lompoc High School’s traditional graduation ceremonies, at which male students for the past several decades have worn the blue caps and gowns and female students have donned white caps and gowns. (The school’s colors are blue and white.)

In addition to altering the traditional caps and gowns, the school also plans to have all students line up alphabetically at the upcoming graduation ceremony and sit together, regardless of gender. Previously, students entered the event in groups of two, most of them male-female, and boys sat on one side in front of the stage, while girls sat on the other with an aisle in between them.

The changes, according to a letter that was sent from Bommersbach last month to students and parents, were made to show “equality and unity” among all students.

“I believe the change is a proactive measure for the right reasons and should be made this year,” read a portion of the letter signed by Bommersbach, who was not at the board meeting.

The speakers at Tuesday’s LUSD board meeting objected not only to that line of reasoning but, also, took issue with the fact that students and members of the community at-large were not involved in the decision-making process.

Kari Campbell-Bohard, who described herself as an LHS alumna and said her children will be the fifth generation of her family to graduate from the school, told the board that she joined with others who didn’t like the changes and they, as a group, took their concerns to Bommersbach in an Oct. 31 meeting.

She said the principal claimed at that meeting that the decision to make the changes was his, and that he was not being pushed by any single student or group. She said she later learned that it was well-known on campus that the Brave Women Club — a student club that was approved in June to “create a safe space where women’s rights and issues can be openly discussed,” according to its mission statement — had advocated for the changes.

Either way, Campbell-Bohard said the process was lacking.

“One small group or one principal should not be able to erase decades of tradition with little to no input from others,” she said.

Campbell-Bohard said she and others within the opposition group went to Bommersbach with what they believed were reasonable compromises, but they were still met with resistance. Among those, she said, was to allow each student to choose whether they wanted to wear blue or white to the ceremony.

“This would address any discrimination concerns but still allow the students to represent their school colors,” she said. “Mr. Bommersbach flatly refused to consider this option.”

While she claimed that Bommersbach indicated that parents and students didn’t need to approve his decisions, the school did hold a voluntary lunch meeting Oct. 5 for students to share their thoughts and ideas on the subject.

According to the letter sent by Bommersbach, “a majority of the comments and suggestions (at that meeting) were to be unified with one color.”

Campbell-Bohard said her own outreach, in which she and others have asked locals to sign a petition to stop the changes, has yielded opposite conclusions.

“We’ve had an extremely positive response from students, parents, alumni, staff and community members,” she said. “We’ve gathered hundreds of signatures with very little effort. But I am sad to say that there are many staff (members) who said that while they strongly support our position that they would not sign the petition for fear of repercussions.”

Kaitlynn Vigil, a junior at Lompoc High, was among the speakers at Tuesday’s meeting. Vigil said she was disappointed when she learned of the changes and felt like the students were being ignored.

“Our four years of high school (are) to express our feelings and make decisions for ourselves,” she said. “This is a major one that students will remember forever.”

Vigil wrote an editorial on the subject for The Smoke Signal, Lompoc High’s student newspaper. In the piece, she lamented that the lone on-campus meeting with students about the decision was held on the same day it was announced, thus limiting attendance and input.

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“We, students, were the ones who earned our diploma,” she wrote, “therefore we should have a say and choice of what we want to wear.”

Outside of the school board meeting Tuesday, some of the people opposed to the changes raised concerns about how far such transitions could go. One person raised questions about whether schools would soon stop having separate restrooms or sports teams for boys and girls.

The letter from Bommersbach noted that many schools in the surrounding area — specifically Santa Maria, Righetti, Santa Barbara, Arroyo Grande, San Luis Obispo, Morro Bay and Paso Robles high schools — already wear one color of cap and gown for graduations.

“Tradition is very important here at Lompoc High School, nevertheless, we owe it to our students to do the right thing when necessary as times change,” the letter read.

Still, some aren’t buying it.

“This community, the Lompoc community, throws their support in so many ways behind the school district and behind Lompoc High School,” Shirley Leonard, LHS Class of 1963, told the LUSD board. “Go to any sports game and you’ll see that the opposing side has a quarter of the people that attend the game, no matter if we’re at home or we’re in Compton.

“Let me tell you, the people of Lompoc support Lompoc High School. The least that they deserve is when a long-standing tradition is changed that they have notification and input into that change. One person should never be allowed to do that, to affect so many proud generations of those long-standing traditions.”

The LUSD board did not discuss the issue further nor move to have it placed on a future agenda. LUSD Superintendent Trevor McDonald did confirm afterward that decisions like those altering graduation ceremonies are typically left to the discretion of a school's principal.

In other action at Tuesday’s board meeting:

  • The board held a brief public hearing for a charter request from Olive Grove Charter School. Three administrators at the school spoke at the hearing, and no board member offered comment. It is expected that the board will decide whether to approve charters for Olive Grove and Trivium charter schools at its next meeting Dec. 5.
  • The board voted 4-0 — board member Richard King was absent — to approve a football booster club for Lompoc High School. The club will allow team officials to establish a nonprofit and raise funding specifically for the football program.
  • The board approved an agreement with the Lompoc Police Department to provide $86,000 in funding to have a resource officer assigned to Lompoc High School. LUSD administrators indicated that they are seeking a resource officer deal for Cabrillo High School, which is located in Vandenberg Village, but were unable to reach an agreement with the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Office, which wanted $180,000 for the position.

Willis Jacobson covers the city of Lompoc for Lee Central Coast Newspapers. Follow him on Twitter @WJacobsonLR.

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