Oak Park and River Forest High School senior Becca Bloch won’t be marching with her classmates at graduation next month.
Bloch, who is also the editor of the student newspaper, Trapeze, is skipping the June 8 ceremony in opposition to the school’s longstanding dress code of white dresses for girls and dark suits for boys. Bloch says the traditional dress code-which has remained virtually the same for more than a century- places boys and girls in gender-specific roles that’s unfair to gay, lesbian and transgender students.
The last significant change to the dress code was in 2000 when girls were allowed to wear white pantsuits. But Bloch also objects to girls having to wear white, which harkens back to a time, she says, where girls were expected to be “pure, virginal and chaste.”
She brought her concerns to administration last fall, and also started a petition among students calling for a change. Bloch got 85 signatures from not only students, but faculty, staff and community members, she says.
Bloch spoke last Thursday at the District 200 Board of Education meeting, joined by two other seniors who support changes to the dress code. Bloch, however, is the only one not planning to take part in the ceremony because of the issue.
“For me, the focus is to have a dress code that reflects equality and uniformity among graduates,” said Bloch. “It doesn’t have to be caps and gowns. The focus is to make it not separate but equal, but that you are a graduate. You are not a female graduate. You’re not male graduate.”
Senior John Allen, who’s also president of A Place for All, a support club for heterosexual, homosexual and transgender students, spoke to the board, insisting that the dress code prevented students from being who they are.
Allen and Bloch also argued for students to have a say in what they should be able to wear at graduation.
OPRF interim Principal Don Vogel said students used to vote on the dress code but the school stopped the practice 20 years ago because most students generally supported the traditional attire.
According to the school’s commencement attire guidelines, girls are expected to wear white dresses, pantsuits or white skirts with an appropriate white top while boys are required to wear dark suits or sport coat and dark dress pants. The girls also carry a dozen red roses at the ceremony. OPRF has followed this tradition since 1877, said Vogel, except during the first World War when female students wore white sailor dresses and suits to support the troops.
Vogel says he talked with Bloch about her concerns earlier in the year, but admitted it would have been difficult to make a change this school year. He did note that some boys decided to show up at this year’s homecoming dance in dresses and that the school didn’t object because they met the school’s guidelines.
Vogel, though, insisted that the school is open to revisiting the graduation dress code.
“Obviously in 20 years, things have changed, so I think it’s good to go back and revisit that,” he said, adding that the community should be involved in any discussion.
“There are lots of people who went to school here and have a vested interest in continuing the tradition.
“Personally,” he added, “I think there’s something special about the pageantry and the way we do it, so I’d want to have the proper conversation before we change it.”