ANDOVER -- In a shift from tradition, Andover High School students elected two prom kings rather than a queen and a king at the recent junior prom.
While the shift follows a growing nationwide trend toward gender-neutral labels, many in the community are questioning the process leading up to the decision to eliminate the gender-based titles.
On Saturday, May 14, Andover High School's junior prom was held at the Double Tree Hotel in Danvers. Rather than voting for a king and queen during the event, students were given a list of 10 names and were asked to vote for two people who would be elected to the prom court.
Jules Teichert, a junior at the high school, said students were never asked for their opinion on the gender-neutral prom court, and were even told that electing a prom king and queen was against the law.
"We were told that we could no longer — absolutely not at all — have a king and a queen," Teichert said during a School Committee meeting last Thursday. "I'm not against new ideas and I'm not against changing the policy. I just wanted to know why we couldn't have a king and a queen."
Teichert said that because the junior prom board is only composed of 15 to 20 students, she doesn't believe administrators got opinions from the entire junior class.
"They're not getting the whole perspective of the 450 plus kids in our grade, which is concerning to me because it wasn't a reflection of what the junior class wanted," Teichert said. "We've been somewhat of a guinea pig class and have had a lot of changes happen to our grade. I feel like this should really be a student decision rather than all of a sudden just going ahead with it."
No educational purpose
Principal Phil Conrad apologized to the committee during last Thursday's meeting, saying that eliminating the gender-specific titles was, in a sense, "putting the cart before the horse."
"It was certainly not our intention to go against the School Committee, it being the policy-setting board," Conrad said. "But it's unusual for a king and queen to be in a student handbook as policy. The specificity of this handbook is unlike any I've ever seen."
Five days after prom, on May 19, Superintendent Sheldon Berman issued a memorandum detailing various changes to the high school's student handbook. Among them, changing the words: "a prom queen and king are crowned" to: "a prom court is nominated and the top two winners are announced."
Conrad cited the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education's "Guidance for Massachusetts Public Schools: Creating a Safe and Supportive School Environment" as reason to eliminate the gender-specific titles.
In the 13-page section on nondiscrimination based on gender identity, the document states that "as a general matter, schools should evaluate all gender-based policies, rules, and practices and maintain only those that have a clear and sound pedagogical (educational) purpose."
A prom king and queen, Conrad said, does not serve an educational purpose.
"The junior (prom) board and junior (prom) advisers talked about the need to be gender neutral according to the Department of Education," Conrad said. "They decided that we would go away from having a gender-based king and queen, because it doesn't really have a pedagogical reason."
The school has also recently made other changes that eliminate gender specificity. Gender identity has not only been built into all anti-discrimination and harassment policies, but the high school is working to accommodate transgender students.
"We're in the process of developing gender-neutral bathrooms throughout the district, but have one gender-neutral bathroom at the high school right now," Berman said. "Principal Phil Conrad is working on transitioning two or three more so that we would have up to four gender-neutral bathrooms at the high school."
The school's Gay-Straight Alliance adviser and English teacher Caitlin Mitchell said this year's seniors also voted for gender-neutral yearbook superlatives.
"The handout to seniors simply said something to the effect of 'Name your top two individuals for each category,'" Mitchell said. "They took the top two vote-getters in each category, just like the prom court did."
School Committee votes
School Committee member Ted Teichert spoke against taking a vote on the handbook's new language last Thursday, requesting that the committee seek the opinion of legal counsel before adopting a policy that he believed the community should be more involved in.
"I don't have a feeling either way about keeping it or changing it, but the student body didn't vote," Teichert said. "They didn't take input from parents, and now we're doing things after the fact. The student body should have felt part of the decision."
Berman agreed with Teichert, saying that the committee should review how other schools in the area have addressed the issue and that legal counsel be contacted for an opinion about whether the change is necessary to comply with the law.
Other members of the committee, though, were in favor of both voting on the changes and adopting them in next year's student handbook. The committee voted 4-0 for the proposed changes, with Teichert abstaining from the vote because he was uncomfortable with the lack of information provided.
School Committee Chairman Joel Blumstein said that while the specificity of the handbook may be unnecessary, he was in favor of implementing the change, regardless of few people it may help.
"Frankly, when it comes to issues like this of civil rights, it is not a question of taking a survey and the majority wins," Blumstein said. "We'd probably still have slavery if it was up to the majority at the time."
Mitchell, the gay-straight alliance adviser, agreed with Teichert in that how students feel about the issue is most important. She said, however, that she hasn't heard any negative reactions from students about electing two prom kings.
"The only reactions that I’ve witnessed from students regarding the prom court have been positive or neutral," Mitchell said. "I think the students’ reaction to the change stands in opposition to some of the rhetoric we’re hearing on a national level, and suggests that younger generations are readily embracing moves to make their world a more inclusive one."