Durango School District 9-R has agreed to implement gender-neutral bathrooms in all of its schools beginning with Park Elementary at the start of the 2017-18 school year, but it is not clear who and what drove the decision.
Tirzah Camacho is the mother of a gender non-conforming child who attends Park Elementary. She said that after he came out to her, she has done everything she can to make him feel comfortable and supported.
“I went right to the school and told them all of this. His transition happened over Christmas break, so the school wasn’t prepared at first,” Camacho said.
Camacho’s child felt more comfortable using a gender-neutral restroom – a bathroom intended for either sex – which there were none of at Park Elementary. She made it a priority to change that.
“It has been a bumpy six months. It is up to the school’s discretion to act however accepting they want to be,” Camacho said.
Camacho said she worked closely with Park Principal Marie Voss-Patterson to make changes to restrooms at the elementary school. Camacho offered to pay out-of-pocket for new gender-neutral signs to be installed outside of all single-stall restrooms at the school.
At the end of July, Camacho said she removed signs, with the school’s permission, from seven single-stall bathrooms at Park Elementary, four of which were gendered “women” or “men.”
“We pulled some signs down from the bathrooms at Park. I took them down with the principal. Three said staff, and four were gendered,” she said.
Camacho said, after hearing her story, the Four Corners Alliance for Diversity offered to fund the new gender-neutral signs, which cost about $400.
Her next task was making these changes at all 9-R schools.
“We are talking inclusivity, not excluding anyone. By default, this lack of action is discriminatory,” she said. “If 9-R doesn’t make these changes across the board, it is discriminatory.”
But about a week after Camacho removed the signs, the district stepped in, she said. In an email exchange between District 9-R Superintendent Dan Snowberger and Voss-Patterson, the principal told Snowberger that Camacho ordered all-gender signs for seven single-gender bathrooms at Park and that it would not cost the district any money because Four Corners Alliance for Diversity was paying for them from its Safe Schools Budget. Voss-Patterson asked for approval before moving forward, and said Camacho was willing to install the signs herself.
Two days after Voss-Patterson sent the email, Snowberger replied and said the district was in the process of “ordering and placing signs at all unisex bathrooms.” He also included an image of the signs the district is using.
District spokeswoman Julie Popp said converting the single-stall, unisex bathrooms had been in the works since the Office of Civil Rights audited Durango High School in 2014.
“The current policies from the Office for Civil Rights requires that any single-stall, unisex bathroom be marked with the appropriate signage to indicate a gender-neutral bathroom,” Popp said in a text message to the Herald.
Also in an email to the Herald, Snowberger said the audit directed the district to include “labeling more clearly unisex or gender-neutral restrooms which exist in all facilities around the district.”
The Durango Herald obtained the Office for Civil Rights audit documents from the district, but there was no documentation of a requirement for single-stalls to have gender-neutral signage. The document that explained 9-R’s plans to respond to the audit also does not include anything about changing bathrooms. It does indicate the district planned to install signs with the International Symbol of Accessibility on some restrooms and locker rooms in Durango High School by June 2015.
Additionally, the Office for Civil Rights disputed Popp’s statement.
“The department’s Title IX regulations state that if a school district provides separate restrooms on the basis of sex, the facilities provided for students of one sex must be comparable to the facilities provided for the other sex,” a U.S. Department of Education spokesman said. “Many school districts also provide gender-neutral, individual-user restrooms, but the department has no Title IX regulation or policy that specifically addresses signage for those restrooms.”
Popp did not confirm or deny that the decision to change the bathrooms at Park to include all genders was made to accommodate the district’s transgender students.
“We have all students in mind when making our decisions. We follow all guidelines for nondiscriminatory access,” Popp said.
She added that the timing of Camacho asking for gender-neutral bathrooms in 9-R schools and the district’s decision to implement new signs was a “coincidence.”
When asked why it took two years since the audit for the signs to be changed, Popp cited a lack of funding.
“With limited funds, we had to look at our priorities and address those first. With the recent mill levy, we have relief funds to reinvigorate these other items on our list,” she said.
District 9-R improvement projects include the addition of an elevator at Big Picture High School and installation of wheelchair ramps outside Durango High School in 2015.
Snowberger initially said in an email to the Herald that no bathrooms were being reassigned at Park. He later retracted that statement when asked why Camacho had possession of the signs she took down at Park showing the female gender sign and male gender sign that were on single-stall bathrooms.
“There are some single-stall restrooms that may have been previously reserved for gender that may receive a gender-neutral sign,” Snowberger said. “As a single-stall restroom, there is certainly no reason to restrict which gender uses these restrooms.”
Popp said there are single-stall bathrooms at all school sites that can be used to accommodate students who may request it.
Snowberger said that the implementation of the gender-neutral signage is a “positive outcome for the family of one child out of nearly 5,000 in the district.”
Popp would not disclose how many transgender students the district has.
“There are other trans kids in the 9-R system and coming into the school system. My child knows one. Maybe that motivated the Park principal to take that step toward changing bathrooms,” Camacho said. “I’m doing this for a number of children. Even if I was the one family, the nature of this work is that if we shift our schools to be more welcoming, then perhaps these kids will feel more comfortable and supported.”