060817 Lompoc graduation 57.jpg (copy)

In this June 8 file photo, the female graduates stand during Lompoc High School's Class of 2017 commencement ceremony. Moves to alter some of the school's traditional customs at next spring's ceremony have created controversy in and around the campus.

Len Wood, Staff

The ongoing controversy surrounding Lompoc High School’s graduation ceremony took another turn Tuesday night as some of the students who helped initiate the school's break from tradition addressed the Lompoc Unified School District board of education to clarify their position and reaffirm their reasons for pushing for change.

Eight members of Lompoc High’s Brave Women Club, as well as both of the club’s faculty advisers, were on hand to address the board and to clear up what they believed were misconceptions about why they asked Lompoc High Principal Paul Bommersbach to change the graduation ceremony this school year by, among other things, having everyone wear blue gowns.

Traditionally, male students have worn blue at the ceremony and female students have worn white. After Bommersbach announced in October that he would be having all students wear blue for the 2018 ceremony, some parents and students became upset and aired their grievances to the LUSD board Nov. 14.

While the board took no official action and seemingly was uninvolved, Bommersbach apparently relented to the opposition and a message was sent to students and parents Nov. 29 informing them that students would be allowed to choose which color they’d like to wear at graduation.

While that decision pleased many of the people who were opposed to the initial change, the members of the Brave Women Club were not happy with the move and expressed that they felt demonized in some ways for pushing for the change in the first place and also that their side of the story wasn’t fully given.

Casidy Cunningham, a senior at LHS and president of the Brave Women Club, opened the presentation Tuesday by reaffirming the club’s mission to create a safe space where women’s rights and issues can be openly discussed by anyone, male or female, who wishes to attend.

“In this ever-evolving society, this topic has become increasingly more prominent in the media,” she said, apparently referencing the #MeToo campaign in which many people, mostly women, have shared stories of sexual abuse committed by people, mostly men, in positions of power.

She then shared a copy of the letter that the club sent to school administrators in June. The letter had not previously been released publicly.

In the letter, the club outlined changes that it wanted to enact ahead of the 2018 commencement. These included having everyone wear blue, having students walk out alphabetically instead of in mostly male-female groups of two and having the students sit alphabetically instead of in two separate sections based on gender. The latter two changes are still set to go forward, although the first was ultimately altered last month.

The club claimed that the school's administration had already been considering similar changes before the letter was ever sent.

“With these changes we hope to show the community that each student receiving a diploma has earned their diploma based on their achievement and merit,” the letter read. “Their diploma has no correlation with their gender or gender identity, and all students are of equal value to the community and the school. These proposed changes will not alter the purpose of the ceremony; instead, the ceremony will be focused on the universal accomplishments of the students.”

The letter went on to say that the gender-based customs can be problematic for students who may not identify with a specific gender and noted that “segregating by gender seems to serve no purpose in the actual ceremony, yet it requires every student to declare a certain gender.”

“Gender equality matters,” Cunningham said. “It is not a trend or a fad. It is something that has been an issue for as long as all of us have been alive and will continue to be an issue as long as any of us choose to ignore it."

While some critics have argued that most students and alumni would prefer that the traditions stay in place, Cunningham countered that "The idea that ‘the majority rules’ does not work in equity discussions. It is often the minority that needs to be protected because their thoughts can be drowned out by the louder thoughts of the majority. We are here to offer that protection.”

LHS junior Erin McCallon, the historian for the first-year Brave Women Club, then outlined why the club was opposed to the ultimately approved move to have students choose which gown to wear.

“Doing the ceremony (with gender-based colors) forced students to wear the color robe of their assumed gender, and while we didn’t exactly know if this affected students currently, we can always assume that it will affect students in the future,” she said. “There’s a reason why we decided to ask for all one color instead of allowing the students to choose their own color in the first place, and it’s because of the basic right to privacy.”

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“A student who does not feel attached to their assumed gender should not have to publicly announce which gender they do feel attached to on their graduation day; not only is it a breach of privacy for that student, but it politicizes a ceremony where the original meaning is a celebration of education,” she added.

Bommersbach initially sided with the group and decided to go ahead with the changes, including the all-blue gowns. Those who were opposed to that decision, some of whom addressed the board at the Nov. 14 meeting, argued that keeping traditions are important and some felt like the Brave Women Club was wielding too much power. Others, online and allegedly at school, also railed against the club for pushing for the changes to the ceremony, which had included gender-based blue and white gowns for at least 50 years.

Members of the club said they were shocked by the fallout.

Sarah Barthel, one of the faculty advisers for the Brave Women Club, told the board Tuesday that the students were simply trying to start a “conversation about changing a tradition to better serve all students.”

“Instead of anyone engaging in a conversation with these students, they became the laughingstock of social media and, at times, the LHS campus,” she said. “Yet here they are, not whining about how they’ve been treated or complaining that they didn’t get their way but, instead, standing strong for something they know is important.”

Barthel went on to say that it’s important to listen and respond to one another and asked how students can better go about advocating for changes or improvements at schools.

“If we are preparing our students for the real world, we need to prepare them not only to be employees but to be leaders and thinkers,” she said. “Long after we retire, these students will be leading our communities — perhaps our countries. If we can’t model for them now how to work for positive change, how can we expect them to do so in the future?"

All of the fallout from the situation led to the Brave Women Club creating its own newsletter. The first edition featured an editorial outlining the timeline of the events of the past nine months or so. The editorial stated that the club was “disappointed” in those community members who resorted to spreading misinformation and bullying tactics, like mocking members of the club and school administrators.

“We are disappointed that this community has shown that complaining and bullying ultimately lets you get your way,” it read. “We are disappointed in the lack of respect for others demonstrated by many of our students and their parents. We are disappointed, and we are ashamed of the way the suggestion for a positive change has divided our community. We are disappointed, but we are not done fighting.”

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

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