IW School Board talks unisex bathrooms

Published 5:06 pm Tuesday, February 1, 2022

Renovating the men’s and women’s bathrooms located in Smithfield High School’s lobby into one combined gender-neutral facility would cost just under $410,000, according to an estimate by RRMM Architects.

Superintendent Dr. Jim Thornton brought the matter up at a special Jan. 26 meeting, stating he’d been asked several months ago to look into the idea.

But Isle of Wight County’s School Board has yet to authorize any such renovations.

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The estimate, Thornton said, is “just to give the board an understanding” of the cost, “if that’s something you want to pursue.”

Per RRMM’s examples, the unisex design would feature floor-to-ceiling stalls — essentially placing each toilet in its own closet-sized room — and an open-concept sink area.

The idea is to create “a place for all children to feel comfortable, if they don’t want to use the current restrooms,” Thornton said.

“We are hearing this request from school systems around the state,” said Jeff Harris, co-director of RRMM’s K-12 design studio. “It’s controversial, as you can imagine, and we don’t promote one way or the other.”

State law required school boards to adopt protections for transgender students at the start of the current school year that are “consistent with” or “more comprehensive than” Virginia Department of Education-recommended policies pertaining to the use of bathrooms, locker rooms, student privacy, harassment, dress codes and sex-specific school activities. Allowing transgender students to use the bathroom of their choice became settled case law in 2021 when the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear a final appeal of Grimm v. Gloucester County School Board.

The case had originated in 2015 when Gavin Grimm, then a 15-year-old student at Gloucester County High School, sued Gloucester’s School Board over a policy that required him to use only bathrooms that corresponded with his sex at birth – female – or single-user bathrooms. In 2020, after a five-year legal battle, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled the ban unconstitutional.

According to Harris, combining the presently separate men’s and women’s bathrooms in Smithfield High’s lobby into one 900-square-foot unisex facility would entail replacing the concrete slab under the existing floor and all of the plumbing — plus treating each individual stall like its own room for ventilation purposes. Based on the current construction market and other factors, Harris estimated the task at $454.72 per square foot.

“It’s an expensive endeavor to renovate an existing restroom,” Harris said. “It’s doable, but it’s costly.”

The School Board selected RRMM in 2020 as its architectural firm of choice for the proposed replacement of Westside Elementary School with a middle school that would house grades 5-7. Designing the new school with unisex bathrooms from the start would be an “easier task to pull off” than an after-the-fact renovation, Harris said.

“Legally I don’t think we’re going to have a choice … it wouldn’t make any sense, if we do choose the new building, to not plan on having gender-neutral restrooms,” said Vice Chairman Michael Cunningham.

District 1 board member John Collick agreed that a court order may be in the near future, and said he was “a big fan” of the floor-to-ceiling stall concept but “would still like to see segregation between the genders as much as possible.”

A county resident — Nicholas Mitchell — also spoke on the proposed gender-neutral bathrooms during the meeting’s public comment period, advocating that the School Board “leave them as-is.”

“If you open a bathroom up for a boy to go to the bathroom while my daughter’s in there, I’m gonna rain hell down on this school district and this board,” Mitchell said.