No more separate restrooms for boys and girls, with rows of feet-showing stalls. The North Kansas City school district is going fully gender neutral at two new elementary schools, opening on Wednesday, as well as in a few renovated restrooms in North Kansas City High School and the sixth-grade centers.
The bathrooms still have an open alcove area with a common trough sink, but the toilets are enclosed inside individual stalls with floor-to-ceiling walls and lockable doors.
A single sign on the wall outside displays both the male and female symbols.
North Kansas City first tried the gender-neutral design when it opened its Northland Innovation Center for gifted students in 2016. That was a year after one of the district’s four high schools, Oak Park, made national headlines when it became one of the first in the country to crown a transgender student its homecoming queen.
“We had such positive feedback from students, teachers and parents,” said Rochel Daniels, executive director of organizational development for the district. “Since then we have decided to replicate the concept in any new construction.” That included the newly built Rising Hill Elementary on Northeast 108th Street and Northview Elementary on North Indiana Avenue, as well as renovations at North Kansas City High and the Eastgate and Gateway sixth-grade centers.
“I think it is great,” said Melanie Austin, whose daughter will be a first-grader at the district’s Crestview Elementary and in gifted classes once a week at the innovation center. “You just don’t know what gender a kid might identify as. This helps everyone to feel comfortable, accepted.”
The district’s new schools and bathrooms were designed by Hollis + Miller, a Kansas City architecture firm known for innovative school buildings. More than 90 percent of its clients are schools. But Daniels said the design of the new bathrooms came from a district team that included parents and students.
“Students said they like these restrooms better because they are more private,” Daniels said.
In addition, she said, teachers can better monitor students because they can stand in the common area while the bathrooms are in use. Before, a female teacher could supervise girls in the bathroom, but she could not walk into the boys bathroom.
The district does not have a policy that speaks to transgender or gender-neutral restrooms, but “we do have a policy about non-discrimination,” Daniels said. “The restrooms became a point where we can provide for all students. The design was a decision based on privacy, safety and security for all students.”
Kirk Horner, president of Hollis + Miller, said the North Kansas City bathrooms were the first of that type his firm has put into a school. He said similar bathrooms are going in at two Kansas City, Kan., middle schools, and the firm is “in high-level” discussions about building the bathrooms in Blue Valley schools.
People are used to seeing a certain type of bathroom in schools, he said, and “this is really different. And it’s a tough issue. But you got to think forward a little bit. We believe they improve safety. I do believe it is gaining momentum.”
Gender-neutral restrooms are not forced by federal or even state law but rather are a decision of individual districts.
“If there was a law that addressed this, it would be our job to implement it,” said Chris Neale, assistant commissioner of quality schools for the Missouri state education department. “We trust school boards like North Kansas City to be very attuned to local constituents and to make the very best decisions with regard to their student population.”
Kelli Hopkins, an associate director for the Missouri School Boards Association, said she can’t speak for the association, but her personal opinion about the North Kansas City bathroom concept is that she has “always thought it is a really good option.”
During the administration of President Barack Obama, the U.S. Department of Education issued guidelines to public schools saying students should be allowed to use restrooms consistent with their gender identity, not necessarily the gender on their birth certificates. Many area districts, including Kansas City Public Schools, began offering one or two single-stall bathrooms for students to use.
Last year, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos rescinded the guideline.
The Americans With Disabilities Act does not directly protect transgender people from discrimination but does consider gender dysphoria a disability and protects people with disabilities from discrimination. Gender dysphoria is the distress a person feels when a biological gender does not match the gender they identify with. The Missouri Human Rights Act does not protect against gender-identity discrimination.
This year a Missouri Nondiscrimination Act bill was passed out of a House committee but never made it to a vote by the full chamber. Opponents cited “privacy concerns” for not allowing transgender people to use the restroom of their choice.
But at the time, Missouri LGBT advocate Steph Perkins said, “Safety and privacy is important to all of us, including in places like restrooms and locker rooms.”
Advocates of the new school bathroom design say perhaps the new changes would make the whole restroom debate moot.