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Should schools host daddy-daughter dances or sports night for boys?

Fierce debate broke out this month at an intown Atlanta elementary school over whether the school's traditional father-daughter dance and boys-only sports night should be continued.

In a tense vote earlier this month, members of the Mary Lin Elementary School PTA voted to continue the traditions of the Small Tall Ball for girls and Linsanity sports night for boys, although not without residual rancor. The fallout found its way to Facebook and social media.

Mary Lin Elementary serves one of Georgia's most diverse and well-educated communities so this debate is not surprising. The popular Atlanta school also has a long history of highly involved parents. You are not likely to see a similar debate around inclusiveness, patriarchy and gender non-conforming/ gender-variant kids in too many other elementary schools in Georgia.

Among the concerns voiced by Mary Lin parents who wanted change: Gender-bound dances and sports nights stood in contrast to Mary Lin's commitment to diversity, reinforced gender stereotypes and weren't welcoming to gender non-conforming children.

"This all stinks of sexism," said a parent who wanted to see the events opened to everyone. "The topic of equity in school dress codes is a hot topic and mothers of girls continually say they want equal right but some of those same parents voted against equal rights in the events. The parents marched on Atlanta for women's rights...and yet this sexist practice continues."

But the parents who voted for continuing the traditions did so after conferring with their kids, saying their daughters felt boys would change the tone and tenor of the much beloved Small Tall Ball.  The PTA took the question to parents, and those who showed up voted 38-29 to maintain the status quo, falling in line with results of a wider survey of Mary Lin parents done earlier.

Here is how the information and vote were presented to parents:

The Mary Lin PTA would like to thank everyone who participated in the Small Tall Ball/Linsanity Survey. Although the results revealed the majority of participants prefers to keep both events as is, the number of people hoping for change was significant enough to let the PTA Board know that this is a conversation that we as a community should continue to have.

Because the survey was not an official "vote," the PTA Board would like to invite the Mary Lin Community to attend the next General Membership Meeting on Tuesday, Nov. 14 at 6:30 p.m. to decide the future of these two 2018 events.

Because it is not logistically feasible to plan an event inside the school for 600+ students (plus a parent) at once, the PTA has proposed four options on which to vote. IF THIS TOPIC IS IMPORTANT TO YOU, PLEASE ATTEND THIS MEETING AND VOTE. Every current PTA member will get one vote.


Both events (Small Tall Ball and Linsanity) stay the same.


Both events (Small Tall Ball and Linsanity) are abolished.


Small Tall Ball and Linsanity stay the same in structure and dates (2/9 and 3/25) and serve students k-5, but shall be inclusive of all genders. Each student may attend (and bring an adult of their choice) the event of their choice (but not both).


Linsanity is abolished and Small Tall Ball is split into two nights, inclusive of gender but divided by age: Small Tall Ball Junior will be on Friday, February 9th at 6:00 pm for k-2, and Small Tall Ball Senior will be on Friday, March 23rd at 6:00 pm for 3-5. Even if families have children in each age group, every student may attend only one event.

I am confident Mary Lin parents will eventually work this out. But the dispute made me again question the amount of energy that goes into non-classroom activities in public schools.

I attended a no-frills parochial k-8 school without field trips, clubs or dances. Sometimes, I wonder if that bare-bones approach wasn’t easier. School dances, sports programs and holiday pageants can create clashes of culture, politics and personal agendas.

A parent called me a few weeks ago frustrated over a third-grade Halloween party where candy was allowed; she felt the menu should have been granola bars and fruit. I've fielded calls this year from parents upset over a range of non-classroom issues including:

•The high school's selection process for homecoming court. (Complaint: This school limited homecoming court to students with leadership roles.)

•The rules on dance attire.  (Parent felt the dress code was archaic and forced girls to wear "dowdy" dresses.)

•The selection of middle school cheerleaders. (Parent felt the process favored girls who attended cheering camps run by one of the coaches.)

•The song list for an elementary school's holiday performance. (Complaint was the repertoire featured "world music," and thus not traditional Christmas fare.)

I understand the motivation to provide students with engaging events outside the classroom but wonder about the friction that can result and the staff and parent volunteers who take the heat. I have seen well-intentioned activities cause acrimony and dissent, sometimes on legitimate grounds, sometimes not.

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About the Author

Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.