Last year, two single-stall faculty bathrooms in New Paltz High School were designated as gender-neutral facilities available to all. While it was something that had been planned for some time, implementation fell through the cracks until students in the school’s Pride Alliance club circulated a petition. It was heralded as a progressive step toward addressing the needs of transgender students in particular, as they may not feel comfortable using the gendered multi-stall bathrooms. However, it’s become clear that not everyone in the school community agrees.
As documented in a letter to the editor from student Gwen O’Meara, the signs designated those bathrooms have been vandalized. In that letter, O’Meara described one instance in which the message “transgender fag bathroom” was scratched in to replace the normal label. Questions about bathrooms have been on the national political stage since the so-called “bathroom bill” in North Carolina — requiring people to use the facilities which conform with the gender on their birth certificate — was debated and ultimately passed in March. It appears that the concerns which led to that law are alive and well in New Paltz.
Principal Barbara Clinton confirmed that vandalism has taken place on more than one occasion, and that thus far the reaction has been to fix it immediately. However, teachers are watching and waiting for any hint to identify culprits, as students sometimes will reveal information about their knowledge or involvement days or even weeks after an incident. No school-wide assembly to discuss the matter is planned, however, because “that’s not how we have addressed these issues in the past.”
O’Meara, as well as fellow members of the Pride Alliance Avery Towers and Aaron Wesdorp, wish that administrators would hold an assembly. “My dream is that the vice principal will hold an assembly to educate people,” O’Meara said. “My boyfriend has used them, and likes that they’re private.” These students feel that education is what’s necessary, and have expressed that opinion to administrators directly.
Clinton said that after the signs were changed some students did express the belief that transgender students were being given special rights; “that was a teachable moment,” she said. Teachable or not, students say that the bathroom signs have been vandalized as many as half a dozen times.
Moreover, Towers said that immediately after the contentious presidential election, reports of harassment rose noticeably. “People had clear stances on everything,” she explained.
Wesdorp said that they observed students in gym class “bashing students” who choose to use that bathroom, and has been told by some classmates that they feel these bathrooms “are going to ruin everything.”
Evan Holland-Shepler, another student at the school, said he prefers using the gender-neutral bathroom out of a desire for privacy. When told about the vandalism, he called it “disgusting.”
That’s the same word student Lauren Torres used. “A large portion of the kids do not understand the importance or goal of a gender-neutral bathroom,” she said. She’s heard it referred to several times as the “bathroom for faggots, so they don’t make the straight kids uncomfortable in the ‘normal’ bathroom. The absolute worst was a group of kids who all decided that it’s bad enough the gays made the school change the graduation gowns to maroon, so why should they get rewarded with their own bathroom?”
Students like Holland-Shepler and O’Meara’s boyfriend also recognize another advantage of these bathrooms that extends to all students: it’s faster. Wesdorp noted that the girls’ bathroom can be extremely crowded during pass times, which is five minutes or less between blocks.
New Paltz High School does not have cameras in the halls, which according to Clinton are in place in some other area schools. All told, even those students who feel victimized prefer it that way. “People would be super uncomfortable being watched all the time,” Towers said.
Besides, O’Meara noted, catching the culprit doesn’t change the mindset which fostered the vandalism in the first place. That’s why these students would like there to be an assembly, to extend Clinton’s “teachable moment” to all students at the same time. To be clear, O’Meara and fellow alliance members do not feel that intolerance is a widespread issue in the high school, but those few students who feel the need to lash out need to be corrected, and soon.