At its meeting Monday, the Eastern Lancaster County school board discussed “two interim policy options to allay the community’s concerns over accommodations the board has made for a transgender high school student,” LNP’s Alex Geli reported. “The first option: Allow students to use only the restrooms and locker rooms that align with their biological gender. The second: Discontinue showering and changing for gym classes at the high school, and decommission the urinals in boys’ restrooms.” In the end, the board punted, agreeing to revisit the issue next month, when a four-member committee established in February will have completed a monthlong review of student privacy districtwide.
It’s never a bad idea, when facing a thorny issue, to take time to make an informed and thoughtful decision.
That seems to be the Elanco school board’s aim here. As we did last month, we laud the board and the district’s administrators for their measured approach to this highly emotive matter.
We understand that some district residents weren’t happy that the board put off making a decision. But we think Elanco Superintendent Bob Hollister was right when he said, after Monday’s meeting, “It just shows the board is taking their time and processing everyone’s concerns and processing the volume of data that they have us collecting for them.”
We stand with district officials in their support for improving the privacy of all students.
The other option — permitting students to use only the restrooms and locker rooms that align with their biological gender — is simply not viable in 2019. It would be, noted school board President Glenn Yoder, “a gamble with very high stakes,” one Elanco likely would lose.
Such a policy would utterly lack compassion toward students who cannot relate to the sex assigned to them at birth. No child asks to be transgender; it’s not a choice. As we noted in a Feb. 8 editorial, “Transgender students just want to safely be who they are in a place they must, by law, go every day to learn.”
And, more practically, a policy that doesn’t respect the rights of transgender students likely wouldn’t pass muster in court — those are the stakes to which Yoder referred.
As Education Law Center attorney Lizzy Wingfield told Geli in January, transgender students are protected from discrimination under the federal Title IX law and by the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act.
Privacy for transgender students — and all students — seems to be the best answer here.
Readers will recall their own high school days when undressing and dressing for physical education classes in communal locker rooms was an embarrassing rite of passage to be endured. But was anything gained by that practice, which was not just mildly embarrassing but downright humiliating for some?
We acknowledge it may have prepared some young people for military service, where privacy is nonexistent, but how was it otherwise beneficial?
We tell children from the time they’re old enough to understand that their bodies are their own, and that they have the right to keep their bodies private. Then we expect them as middle- and high-schoolers to put up with the towel-snapping and caustic commentary of their peers in open showers and locker rooms.
A widely disseminated 2016 Omaha World-Herald article reported that open showers are going out of style at schools. Vanessa Schutte, an architect who had been designing schools for more than a decade, told that newspaper she’d never been involved in designing “what we would call a gang shower.”
The trend is toward private showers and private changing stalls, she said — an evolution spurred not by government regulation but by privacy concerns identified by school officials and architects.
(The World-Herald reporter interviewed students and school officials who said many kids skip showering after physical education classes; some "body-conscious" kids simply refuse to shower. And some kids, if they need to change their clothes, do so in bathroom stalls.)
Elanco clearly is following an already established trend — one that serves the interests not just of transgender students, but all students.
Hollister said the new policy is “pretty close” to completion.
“Renovations to the high school locker rooms, which would cost about $1 million, could start in the fall,” Geli reported. The locker rooms would feature individual changing areas and showers. (Renovations to other district schools would follow “as soon as possible,” Hollister has said.)
As a permanent solution, that route strikes us as very sensible — and one that other school districts should consider taking, if they haven’t already acted to enhance privacy for their students.
We’d hope that new schools would be designed with student privacy in mind. But school officials can’t simply wait for new construction to solve this dilemma for them.
A million-dollar retrofitting of schools with individual showers and dressing and toilet stalls would be a significant expense.
But it may be a far more practical solution than engaging in litigation to delay the inevitable — the obligation to offer all students more privacy. And it has the added benefit of being the right thing to do.