'Gender-neutral' restrooms at six Upper Arlington schools get court's OK but attract opposition

Nate Ellis
ThisWeek group
This is one side of the flyer anonymously mailed to Upper Arlington residents the week of Nov. 2.

Plans for “gender-neutral” restrooms at six Upper Arlington schools that are being rebuilt or renovated have the green light from the courts, but the matter has attracted opposition. 

On Sept. 15, Franklin County Common Pleas Judge Gina Russo ruled Upper Arlington Schools could move forward with plans – approved by Upper Arlington’s Building, Planning and Zoning Department – to install gender-neutral restrooms that can be used by boys or girls as the district rebuilds and renovates Upper Arlington High School and five elementary buildings. 

The ruling came after the Ohio Board of Building Appeals on June 4 denied the district a variance to install the restrooms by a 3-2 vote, with the majority finding gender-neutral restrooms don’t comply with building code for public schools in Ohio because they aren’t separately labeled for each gender. 

This is one side of the flyer anonymously mailed to Upper Arlington residents the week of Nov. 2.

While the court decision was a win for the district, a recent two-sided piece mailed to homes in Upper Arlington the week of Nov. 2 urged residents to contact Upper Arlington school board members and Superintendent Paul Imhoff to oppose the restrooms. 

The anonymous mailer followed an Oct. 16 special board meeting in which questions from several community members prompted Imhoff to post an extended statement about the restrooms on the district’s website. 

The mailer stated that “backdoor discussions by district leadership regarding the shift to ONLY gender neutral bathrooms for students have been ongoing, leaving residents in the dark.” 

According to Karen Truett, communications director for the district, each school still will have separate restrooms designated for boys and girls. 

Truett said the proportion of gender-neutral restrooms to those specifically designated for genders “varies by building, but all of the schools will have separate boys and girls restrooms available.” 

“The reasons for moving to this design were privacy, practicality and safety, as mentioned above and in the message on our website,” she said. 

As of Nov. 13, ThisWeek Upper Arlington News was unable to determine who sent the flyers, which also claim the district gave no opportunities for community input about the restroom plans and disputes district officials’ contentions that the restrooms provide “total privacy.” 

At this point, the gender-neutral restrooms are being installed only at the high school and in elementary buildings because they are being rebuilt and renovated. Those projects are the result of voter approval of a 5.17-mill bond in November 2017 to upgrade those buildings. The bond is designed to provide $230 million over 37 years for those six projects. 

In his Oct. 16 web post, Imhoff described the gender-neutral facilities as “private toilet rooms.” 

He noted that instead of restrooms designated for boys or girls with a row of stalls that “are open on the bottom and the top,” the new facilities will provide a row of private toilets with “full, floor-to-ceiling walls and a full, locking door.” 

“Because they are completely private toilet rooms, they can be used by any student,” Imhoff said. “The sinks and mirrors are right outside those private toilet rooms and can also be used by any student, which is the same design we have had in UA and has existed across the country for many decades.” 

Imhoff reiterated that the main reason the district is including gender-neutral private toilets in the new and renovated schools is because they offer more privacy. 

He added that because sinks for the facilities are in open view, they’re safer than traditional, gender-specific restroom layouts and “minimize the risk of teasing and even bullying when staff can supervise the area and all of their students.” 

“It was not possible for one adult to do that when students would leave to go to two separate restroom areas,” he said. 

As for public discussion of the restroom plans, Imhoff said the designs were openly discussed in several meetings over an 18-month period leading up to construction of the buildings and can be seen in PowerPoint presentations shared with the community. 

Despite those assertions, the mailers circulated in the community contend the toilet room floor-to-ceiling doors that lock provide “increased opportunity for drug use and overdose,” easy access to vape in school, increased opportunity for sexual interactions between students and the possibility that students will inadvertently lock themselves into a stall. 

Additionally, the mailer states the design could lead to delays in administering medical assistance to students in need, the possibility of students being uncomfortable with students of the opposite gender being in the same restroom space and “adolescent girls going through puberty are forced to manage physical maturation while sharing a bathroom with boys.” 

The district’s costs for taking the matter to the BBA and common pleas court weren’t immediately available. 

nellis@thisweeknews.com 

@ThisWeekNate