NEW ROCHELLE, NY -- Dozens of New Rochelle residents came out Tuesday night to express their opposition to a decision of the New Rochelle Board of Education to end the long-standing tradition of gender-specific graduation gown colors.
An on-line petition, "Saving our purple and white graduation tradition" has received over 400 signatures.
"We the undersigned residents of New Rochelle support the saving of the traditional attire, of purple and white gowns for the New Rochelle High School Graduation."
At the school board meeting, held at Webster Elementary School, speaker after speaker came to the microphone to decry the lack of process that led to a decision to few were aware was being considered.
"The process in which this decision was made was so narrow that it didn’t adequately engage the students, the parents, or the community at large," said Mark McLean, a member of the Westchester County Human Rights Commission. "The decision was hastily made in a vacuum, only considering the sensibilities of a small segment of our community, while completely ignoring the vast majority."
Many of those challenging the decision were life-long residents who themselves wore the purple-and-white.
The meeting came to an awkward, screeching halt when Peter Parente, who grew up in New Rochelle, joined the Marines and went to war, after his graduation from the high school, asked those board members who had graduated from New Rochelle High School to raise their hands. None did.
Stephanie Tomei, a parent, supported the decision, citing statistics of teen suicide and deriding opponents who "failed to grasp" the need for change.
Pearl Quarles, who has spent decades leading change in New Rochelle as an elected official and involved community member, took exception to the "failed to grasp" remark.
The first public mention of the plan to have all students wear a purple gown, starting in 2017, came at a school board meeting at the Trinity Elementary School on February 23. According to Schools Superintendent Dr. Brian Osborne, the decision had already been made prior to a presentation to the board led by New Rochelle High School Principal Reginald Richardson. The decision was formally announced on a New Rochelle High School community email list on March 7. Gown color will be optional in 2016.
At the February 23 board meeting, Richardson explained his decision, saying "sometimes the things that are in front of us every day act as symbols and sometimes those symbols can either contradict or at least create a tension in terms of our intentions to create safe and joyous place”.
Jackson Riemerschmid, the leader of the effort to eliminate dual-color gowns, said it was unfair to cause unnecessary anxiety for “non-binary students”, those who do not align with either male or female to openly declare their gender. The student said that gender-neutral graduation robes was one way that all students could graduate comfortably and confidently.
Riemerschmid believes that a binary system of purple for boys and white for girls is “archaic” with “no place in our community”.
Somewhat undercutting this argument was Riemerschmid's decision to play on the boy's soccer team this spring, sources say.
After appearing before the school board in February, Riemerschmid published two photos of a damaged vehicle on Facebook in March. The post showed a smiling Riemerschmid, kneeling next to the vehicle, flashing a "thumbs up" sign. One photo showed a broken side mirror and the other of a damaged rear bumper.
"Last Wednesday (March 2nd) someone broke the mirror off my car and then Friday (March 4th) bashed my back bumper in with a hammer that they left next to my car," Riemerschmid posted on March 7th.
"I know this is a result of my advocating for the change in graduation robes but I will never stop fighting for the LGBTQ+ community," wrote Riemerschmid on Facebook.
“We are fully aware of the situation that occurred and have been in communication with the student and the parents,” said Richardson. Richardson said school officials reported the matter to the police.
The New Rochelle Police Department has no such report.
"We have no record of that incident having been reported to us," said Captain Cosmo Costa of the NRPD.
In his letter to students in March, Richardson wrote:
"Beginning with the class of 2017, all students will dress in purple gowns, a strong visual declaration of the unity we all feel.” “As we support all of our students on the path to adulthood, we have come to know that a number of them have begun the journey of identifying as transgender, gender neutral, gender-fluid, or non-binary gender. Some have taken the first courageous steps of sharing their truth with their friends and families. Others may have privately identified their gender identity and are not yet ready to share this information publicly. Having a single color cap and gown for graduation is an important step toward creating an atmosphere that allows all of our students to enjoy the capstone event of their high school career equally, without the anxiety or fear that gender-specific colors might cause.”
"This decision sends the wrong message to our young people. The message that gender distinction is an out of date idea. That somehow it is wrong and oppressive is at best incredible, and at worst it is divisive
and highly offensive. The fact that the principal of the high school and the BOE, with this decision to destroy the long standing graduation tradition of gender specific robes, have cosigned this radical ideology is an outrage. Gender distinction matters."