For the first time, all students graduating from Aberdeen High School in June will wear one color caps and gowns – royal blue – a break from a long tradition where boys wore blue caps and gowns and girls wore gold caps and gowns.
While AHS is the only public high school in Harford County to adopt such a change, one school system in the region, Howard County, has moved to require single color caps and gowns for graduating seniors at all its high schools, a change that is drawing opposition from parents who liked the old tradition, but praise from others who say it will make transgender students more comfortable.
"I understand it's going to be hard for some, because it's hard to break from tradition and a lot of parents have strong memories of being in school colors at graduation," said Catherine Hyde, mother of a transgender graduate of Marriotts Ridge High School and a parent facilitator for the local chapter of PFLAG, an organization for families and allies of the LGBT community.
"This is a move that will help all of our students feel more comfortable and welcomed," Hyde said.
Howard County's move comes as other school systems also are considering gender-neutral graduation attire. Last year, three schools in Montgomery County opted to have one color for boys and girls, though that county has not imposed a system-wide directive.
The change to single color caps and gowns at Aberdeen High is not a result of a drive for gender neutrality per se, according to Harford County Public Schools Manager of Communications Jillian Lader.
"This change is made at the school level and was decided because the focus of graduation is on the unity of the class, and that each student has achieved the same goal," Lader wrote in an email Wednesday. "Other schools are having similar discussions, but have not made any changes at this time."
Aberdeen High's colors are royal blue and gold and, like other public and private high schools in Harford, boys have typically worn the darker of their school's colors and girls the lighter color, for their graduation caps and gowns.
Lader said discussions about graduation gowns and other gender neutrality topics haven't been confined to AHS, however, confirming there has been similar talk about it in the Fallston High community, among others. The Fallston situation did not progress to the stage where any decision was made, according to Lader.
"Administrators at all of the high schools have been dialoguing about graduation gowns and a few have spoken with their communities," she said. "The issue at Fallston High school was not necessarily about changing the color, but more about the timing of the discussion."
At this point in the year, Lader noted, some senior traditions have already occurred.
"Rather than make a decision to change to a more collegial graduation visual, showing unity of class and having colors focused on accomplishment, via cords rather than gown colors that denote gender, administrators understand the need to have that discussion at a time, so as not to disrupt senior activities that may have already started and may already include colors traditionally worn in the past," she explained.
"At Aberdeen High School, there was an overwhelmingly positive response to the announcement, so administrators were able to move forward with the decision to have one color gown for all students," she said.
Public schools are not the only institutions considering a change.
Madelyn Ball, principal at the John Carroll School in Bel Air, said administrators of the private Catholic school do not plan to change policies for this school year, but may consider changes in the future. Male John Carroll seniors wear black caps and gowns for their annual commencement ceremonies; females wear white.
"I don't want to be behind the eight ball when that situation could arise," Ball said.
“We’ve not been confronted with any requests such as that from students or parents,” Bryan Wilson, principal of Harford Christian School in Darlington, said Friday.
“Being a school ministry grounded squarely on the Bible we’re not behind the LBGT-gender neutral agenda at all," Wilson said.
The school was founded in 1965 as a ministry of the Reformation Bible Church in northern Harford County. The school's female graduates wear white caps and gowns, while male graduates wear burgundy.
Wilson stressed the school is “grounded squarely on the foundation of God’s word and His creative order.”
The Maryland State Department of Education issued recommendations in October for providing "safe spaces" for nonconforming gender students. The recommendations were not binding but encouraged school systems to "consider gender neutral dress codes for class or yearbook photos, honor society ceremonies, graduation ceremonies or dances." Spokesman William Reinhard declined Tuesday to comment on the issue.
Howard schools spokesman John White did not attribute the change to the state guidelines, saying it was made in large part for uniformity and efficiency at graduation.
"But we do want to make sure the ceremonies are welcoming for all students," White said.
White said in addition to wearing one color, boys and girls in all of Howard County's high schools will line up together in alphabetical order at commencement, not separated by gender.
Frank Eastham, the system's director of school administration, said he made the decision based on input from high school principals. He said the county's Mount Hebron High School made the change last year, and other principals had requested a single color in years past. When time came for a review of graduation procedures, principals agreed as a group that "we should go ahead and move to one color."
Some parents are questioning the benefits of Howard County's changes.
"Why take away tradition?" said Anne-Marie Colgrave, whose daughter is graduating from Marriotts Ridge in May.
Colgrave said the move will hurt nonconforming gender students.
"Forcing gender neutral, this causes animosity instead of promoting diversity," she said. "They're trying to support the minorities, but you're making yourself stand out because you're a minority, and there will be backlash. It's not going to help your cause, it's going to hurt it."
In Baltimore City and Baltimore and Anne Arundel counties, officials said there is no system-wide policy regarding gender-neutral graduation gowns. In Carroll County, director of high schools Kim Dolch said she didn't know if gender-neutral graduation attire had ever been discussed.
Baltimore Sun Media Group reporters Lisa Philip, David Anderson, Cindy Huang and Lauren Lorrichio and Baltimore Sun reporters Liz Bowie and Erica Green contributed to this article.