You might know ninth grade students as freshman, but in one Massachusetts high school, that is no longer the case. In an effort to be more inclusive of all genders, Easthampton High School will replace "freshman" with a different term: "first year students." After all the time it took for my 13-year-old self to memorize the seemingly arbitrary names of each class of students in high school, this seems like a solid move for the sake of both gender neutral language and simple clarity. (Seriously — why do we wait until the 11th grade to call students juniors? Inquiring minds would like to know.)
On Thursday, WWLP reported that Easthampton High has begun referring to ninth graders as first years, and in an assembly, it asked its students to do the same. The change was recommended to the student handbook committee by the school's Gender and Sexuality Alliance Group, which aimed to make the handbook's language more inclusive. Now, the revised edition reads, "For the purpose of class meetings and activities, including the class dues, students will be considered first years, sophomores, juniors, and seniors."
The School Committee Policy Subcommittee chairwoman, Marissa Carrere, told Massachusetts newspaper The Republican via email that the school's decision was a "simple, sensible way to foster a more inclusive and equitable environment, and was in concert with the many transformations underway at our district."
Some of those transformations may stem from the state Attorney General's months-long investigation into racial bias at the school. In August, the report concluded that black and Latino students were disciplined more often and more severely than white students. This resulted in the appointment of a diversity officer, and according to The Republican, the handbook committee teamed up with civil rights groups like the Anti-Defamation League to revise its policies. While the investigation centered on ethnicity, the change from "freshman" to "first year students" was part of those revisions.
James Winston, Esq., told WWLP that students have the "right to free speech," so they can say freshman if they choose to. Furthermore, superintendent Nancy Follansbee reportedly published a statement agreeing that students are under no obligation to eradicate the term from their vocabulary. However, that hasn't stopped some Twitter users from airing their displeasure with what they perceive as political correctness gone too far.
But as one user pointed out, the change is to the handbook; nobody is forcing students to change their language. One Easthampton resident told WWLP that while using more neutral language has been a "challenge," she wants to put people at ease. "If it means that I have to change the way I use my language, I’m OK with that," she told the station.
A push toward gender inclusive language has been gathering momentum for several years now. This year, the Associated Press Stylebook officially recognized "they" as a singular pronoun, opening up far more opportunities to use neutral language. In November, New York City's Metropolitan Transit Authority announced it would eliminate "ladies and gentlemen" from its messages to the public. Instead, employees and pre-recorded messages will use terms like "passengers" and "everyone." Several preschools in Sweden have also implemented gender neutral policies to work against stereotyping. Teachers refer to students by their first names or as "friend," and toys are jumbled together rather than grouped by gender.
Gender inclusive language isn't always welcomed with open arms, of course. In late November, the French prime minister, Édouard Philippe, issued a memo banning the use of inclusive language in official documents. (To be fair, the middots inserted to create a gender neutral noun in French do look a tad clunky.)
If Easthampton's handbook revision is any indication, the move toward more inclusive language is proceeding at a slow but steady rate. If it makes a difference in just one student's life, it's safe to say the change was worth it.