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LGBT privacy concerns to be part of LHS, FSHS locker room makeovers

Lawrence USD 497 school board

When Lawrence school board members earlier this month took action on locker rooms, you might have thought parents would soon start asking some direct questions.

After all, the school board had just made clear that transgender students had the right to use either a male or female locker room, whichever one they felt best identified with their gender.

That could lead to a question of whether a female student may see male genitalia in the female locker room? Or, conversely, will male students start seeing female genitalia in the male locker room?

The answer: It is possible at Lawrence High, Free State and the district’s middle schools. District officials confirmed that the policy applies to both high school and middle school locker rooms. The district’s grade schools don’t have locker rooms.

Currently, the district’s locker rooms have large communal areas — including communal showers. They don’t have individual changing rooms. District officials are considering new designs for locker rooms as they update schools.

But something else is possible in Lawrence: Parents may not have on their minds the question of what their students will see in the locker rooms.

Lawrence school board member Vanessa Sanburn said her phone was silent and email inbox uncluttered after she and fellow board members approved new LGBT guidelines earlier this month.

“I did not hear from any constituents with any concerns,” Sanburn said. “I did hear from some people who were very happy we were willing to take positive positions for all our students. I did not get any negative feedback.”

The new guidelines do give options to students who may feel uncomfortable with the arrangements. The guidelines state alternative accommodations will be made available to those uncomfortable with changing into sports or PE apparel in the presence of transgender students.

Sanburn, who was on the district’s LGBTQ Task Force which developed the guidelines, said one of the reasons the guidelines were greeted with acceptance was that they were a restatement of policies that were already in place. She said the guidelines were adopted to give teachers and administrators clearer direction in what the district’s antidiscrimination policies are.

David Cunningham, district chief legal counsel and executive director of human resources, said the district’s locker room policy uses guidance from the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights.

“In broad terms, the guidance says you can’t discriminate against someone because of sexual orientation,” he said. “The guidance went on to say you have to allow transgender students the right to use the restroom or locker room of the sex they identify.”

The Topeka school district has adopted a similar policy, Cunningham said.

Awareness of the locker room policy is now part of the culture in the two Lawrence high schools, said Kevin Harrell, district executive director of student support and special education. There is no formal process in which those uncomfortable with sharing a locker room with a transgender student make requests for alternative accommodations, he said.

“I think it’s the culture and expectation that if you have an issue, that you express it to your PE teacher, coach or principal,” Harrell said.

The assignment of alternative accommodations is also handled on a one-on-one informal basis, but meant to meet a student’s needs and desires, Cunningham said.

“It depends on the student and the desire of the student,” he said. “Some students have used single-room facilities, like maybe a bathroom in the nurse’s office or a coach’s office. Really, it’s on a case-by-case basis. There’s no set criteria.”

The transgender guidelines were adopted as the district was looking at physical locker room changes as part of the $87 million bond issue voters approved in May. The designs of the district’s middle and high school locker rooms used for physical education classes and sports haven’t changed in decades, Cunningham said. The current district’s two high school locker rooms have rows of lockers behind benches and communal shower rooms with multiple shower heads.

Locker room makeovers departing from traditional designs will be coming with the $50.2 million in upgrades at Lawrence High School and $15.2 million at Free State High School. New high school locker room designs would reflect current student discomfort with the openness of high school locker rooms, Cunningham said.

With less money in the bond issue for middle school renovations, “the focus has to be, how do we create the privacy they need with what they currently have?” Harrell said.

Discomfort with open shower rooms contributes to a decline in their use after PE classes or sporting events, Cunningham and Harrell said.

“Most kids will do some changing, but seldom does anyone shower anymore,” Harrell said. “For PE, they don’t. For sports, they change, but they prefer to shower at home.”

Lawrence school board President Shannon Kimball said the board was aware of the general desire for greater locker room privacy and received feedback from the LGBTQ Task Force last spring on the issue. Providing more locker room privacy has been part of early discussions of the high school projects with architects from Gould Evans, she said.

“We feel it is appropriate to provide facilities that could be used by any number of our students for greater privacy,” she said. “Kids don’t want to use gang showers. We have talked in general terms that we should really be thinking about facilities for all students.”

Kimball, who is on the board’s Facilities Committee with board member Marcel Harmon, said the process for developing designs for the bond projects has just started.

The district’s timeline is to complete the Free State High School designs in March 2018 and those for the more extensive LHS work in August 2018.

Students, faculty, administrators and parents from both high schools will have to the opportunity to provide input in the design process, she said. This week, a survey was sent to LHS and FSHS students asking for their input on the improvements, she said.

As that process starts, Gould Evans architects are developing options for locker room design considerations, Kimball said.

“They are looking at what’s being done at other projects and will come to us with recommendations,” she said.

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