Highland Park Public Schools has once again reversed course on its all-gender bathroom policy at Bartle Elementary School, with an announcement this morning that the school will change a multi-stall girls bathroom to an all-gender bathroom beginning October 4.
In a letter to the Bartle community, principal Jennifer Knapp noted that there will continue to be gender-specific bathrooms as well as a new, code-compliant all-gender bathroom.
Ms. Knapp reported that a whole school meeting would take place to “explain the changes and [to] remind our students of appropriate behavior in our bathrooms. She noted that a second phase includes the conversion of another multi-stall bathroom to an all-gender bathroom “at or around October 28.”
The announcement marks the latest chapter of a policy whose rapid, unannounced implementation was met with an equally sudden revocation of the all-gender bathroom access initiative. At the start of the school year at Bartle Elementary, which comprises grades 2 through 5, four of six bathrooms had been designated as multi-gender, or all-gender, bathrooms. But those newly-designated bathrooms were quickly changed back to single-gender bathrooms.
No specific reason was cited for the reversal, but as concerned parents packed the September 16, 2019 Board of Education meeting, Anne Gowen, Board vice chair, said that the district moved on its policy without advance communication “and the Board is very sorry about that.”
“There was just a breakdown in communication and we moved more quickly than we ordinarily would with something that people might have concerns about.” Ms. Gowen went on to say that the district recognizes the “need for bathrooms that protect all of our students.”
While the original removal of all-gender bathroom access was never fully explained by the district, Dr. Scott Taylor, district superintendent, indirectly referenced the matter in a September 11, 2019 update to the schools community, noting a need to more “effectively communicate with our parents and guardians.”
“It’s not easy to anticipate your questions and concerns, but I can certainly work harder to recognize these questions and concerns and take ownership of this grow,” Dr. Taylor wrote.
At the September 16 Board of Education meeting, Ms. Gowen said the best way forward for the district was to reimplement at least some all-gender bathrooms.
“It has become clear to us that the best way to accommodate the needs and preferences of our diverse group of students will be to provide at Bartle at least one, all-gender, multi-stall bathroom in addition to our current, traditional, separate facilities segregated by gender,” she said, adding that for several students, this change is a matter of urgency.
The initial removal of all-gender bathrooms at Bartle prompted the creation of a grassroots effort to urge the district to course correct.
In 2016, the Obama administation issued a directive instructing public schools to allow transgender students to use bathrooms and other school facilities that match their gender identity. The proposal came after North Carolina House Bill 2, known as HB2, was signed into law, and says the bathroom a person uses is determined by his or her biological gender at birth.
President Obama’s executive order came after Rep. Frank Pallone (D-NJ), whose district includes Highland Park, led a 2014 effort urging President Obama not to include special exemptions for religious organizations in his planned executive order regarding workplace protections for LGBT Americans employed by federal contractors. The letter was in response to faith groups calling on President Obama to create exemptions that would allow an employee to be fired based on their sexual orientation or gender identity.
Rep. Pallone joined Dr. Taylor and the Highland Park Board of Education at the Highland Park High School in 2016 to laud a district policy that would allow transgender students to access any school bathroom, locker room, or school program based on their affirmed gender. The policy is also intended to create a program to support transgender students, prohibit discrimination, protect transgender students’ privacy, and train school employees in promoting an LGBT-affirming school environment.
President Trump rescinded President Obama’s directive in 2017.