Appeals court to determine if gender-neutral restrooms at Upper Arlington schools can be challenged

Nate Ellis
ThisWeek group
Upper Arlington Schools

The 10th District Court of Appeals for the State of Ohio will determine if the mother of a Windermere Elementary School kindergarten student may challenge Upper Arlington Schools’ plans to install gender-neutral restrooms at the school.

On Dec. 15, UA Schools and the district’s school board filed the appeal to a Nov. 30 ruling by Judge Gina Russo that would allow the woman, identified as “Jane Doe,” to challenge the restroom plans for the new Windermere building slated to be opened in August.

As of Jan. 7, no hearings for the case had been scheduled. However, Judge Julia Dorrian has scheduled a mediation via teleconference at 11 a.m. Feb. 9. 

The case comes after the district last fall opened reconstructed school buildings at Greensview Elementary School and Wickliffe Progressive Elementary School that feature restrooms that could be used by boys or girls.

The gender-neutral restrooms are described in court filings as “single-occupant toilet rooms with ceiling-to-floor walls and solid, full-frame, lockable doors." They also are being built into the new Upper Arlington High School and renovated Barrington and Windermere elementary schools.

The case moves to appeal 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.

After that ruling, the district appealed the matter to the Franklin County Common Pleas Court on June 24.

Although the city of Upper Arlington was named as a defendant in the matter, the city agreed in court filings the district should be given a variance to use the gender-neutral restrooms. In doing so, the city argued not allowing the variance would create an "unnecessary hardship" on the district and its students. 

On Sept. 15, Russo ruled the case should be remanded back to the Ohio Board of Building Appeals and a variance should be granted to allow the gender-neutral restrooms. 

However, she reversed her decision Nov. 30, after determining that the parent, Jane Doe, should be able to challenge the restrooms legally.

"It really all comes down to privacy, practicality and safety," UA Schools Superintendent Paul Imhoff said. "The article I have shared from our website provides more details on this point.

"There is no legal or code violation regarding the design or construction of the bathrooms. There is only a question about the appropriate/proper signage."

Imhoff said in an Oct. 16 web post said the restrooms are “completely private toilet rooms” that can be used by any students, and added the sinks and mirrors outside the toilet rooms are in open view and that the facilities are safer than traditional, gender-specific restroom layouts.  

Additionally, Imhoff said, the restroom layouts “minimize the risk of teasing and even bullying when staff can supervise the area and all of the students.”

During a Dec. 8 Upper Arlington School Board meeting, six community members spoke out in favor of the gender-neutral restrooms, with many of them echoing Imhoff’s contentions about them.

Marcie Seidel called them “forward-thinking in the care and health and well-being of all children in the district.” She added they will help “school personnel to appropriately monitor and reduce substance abuse” because the restroom areas are in view of school staff.

"All of the new and renovated buildings include the private toilet rooms, as well as separate boys and girls restrooms," Imhoff said.

"The construction and design of the (gender-neutral restrooms) is in compliance with all guidelines. The only compliance question relates to the appropriate signage for the restrooms, which is currently aligned with the International Building Code, as recommended by the district’s architecture firm.

"The existing Ohio Building Code is outdated and does not address signage for private toilet rooms in schools in the way that the International Building Code does for educational facilities. The Ohio Building Code was being prepared for updates to match the International Building Code at the time that the COVID pandemic hit and has since been delayed."

Among those opposed are Cathy Pultz, a former Parent Teacher Organization president at Greensview, Hastings Middle School and the high school.

Although each newly built and renovated school building would feature both gender-neutral restrooms and traditional restrooms designated specifically for boys and girls, Pultz said, the designated restrooms aren’t proportionately spread out in buildings to offer students adequate choices to use them.

“It’s misleading and disingenuous when they say there are boys and girls bathrooms,” Pultz said. “If you’re at Greensview, it would take 20 minutes for a young child to go from the Langston (Drive) side of the building to the boys and girls restrooms. If you’re on the third floor of the high school, you can’t go by the gym where the boys and girls restrooms are in five minutes between classes.”

Additionally, Pultz called into question how sanitary the gender-neutral restrooms will be, and said they might cause students to be uncomfortable because boys and girls will be sharing the spaces.

“If a girl needs to go to the bathroom and there’s a fifth-grade boy standing there, that can be a little intimidating,” she said. “By sharing bathrooms between boys and girls, someone is going to have to touch a toilet seat when they use the bathroom.”  

Additionally, Pultz, who was a member of the UAHS Building Committee when the new high school was being planned, disputed Imhoff’s assertions that the restroom plans 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.

“If this was in the plan from the beginning, it was never to code,” she said. “Why didn’t they ask for the (building) variance back in 2019 when they started building?”

nellis@thisweeknews.com

@ThisWeekNate