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Johnson High in St. Paul plans to remodel for stalls with floor-to-ceiling walls

ST. PAUL -- St. Paul Public Schools is taking a novel approach to the debate over who gets access to which restrooms. One year after making a policy change that granted transgender students and staff access to whichever restrooms and locker rooms...

ST. PAUL -- St. Paul Public Schools is taking a novel approach to the debate over who gets access to which restrooms.

One year after making a policy change that granted transgender students and staff access to whichever restrooms and locker rooms they prefer, the district is preparing to eliminate gender-specific restrooms wherever possible.

At Johnson Senior High, every restroom will be converted to single-occupancy stalls as part of a major renovation later this year.

Architectural designs for the project show a series of toilets, each with its own floor-to-ceiling walls and door, and shared sinks. The doors will be visible from the hallway, and locking hardware will indicate whether the rooms are occupied.

The model will be the new construction standard for the district, except in schools where existing plumbing necessitates multi-stall restrooms.

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“We do see this as being a very beneficial model in all of our schools,” said Tom Parent, the district’s facilities director.

Parent said it’ll cost more to build walls instead of partitions between stalls, but the school can fit more fixtures in the same space. The remodel will add at least six more toilets to the school.

Johnson is going first because the school’s original 1963 plumbing never has been replaced. The district decided to overhaul the restrooms at the same time because students have complained about the condition of their restrooms.

Beyond cosmetics, the renovation should allay concerns - at least in one school - over who’s sharing a restroom with whom.

Republican lawmakers in Minnesota and elsewhere have sought to bar students from using gender-specific restrooms and locker rooms that don’t match their sex at birth. The effort failed in Minnesota but succeeded in North Carolina; South Dakota’s governor vetoed a similar bill.

The Obama administration has supported transgender students’ right to use their preferred restrooms, and judges have agreed in most cases.

Still, transgender students often seek out single-stall restrooms in the school nurse’s office or faculty lounge rather than choose between a restroom that matches either their sex at birth or their gender identity.

The St. Paul school board last year adopted a gender-inclusion policy, which grants students the right to be treated according to their gender identity. Students who complete a gender-change form can access their preferred restrooms and locker rooms and participate on sports teams.

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The policy also sets the expectation that teachers will not separate students by gender without a compelling reason.

The district said its single-occupancy restrooms will be “more inclusive for all people.”

The restroom overhaul is part of a $5.56 million renovation scheduled to begin this summer at Johnson. It also includes updates to hallways and meeting spaces, roof replacement and new boilers and electrical work. The number of toilets in the school will increase by at least six in time for the 2017-18 school year.

The school’s gender-specific locker rooms are not being renovated.

Gary Amoroso, executive director for the Minnesota Association of School Administrators, said facilities access issues have been on school leaders’ minds since the Minnesota State High School League set guidance for transgender student participation in sports in December 2014.

He expects more schools to at least consider single-occupancy restrooms.

“If that’s the choice they’ve made to help students feel included and safe, then I applaud them for thinking through the situation and making the decision that’s best for their students,” he said.

Stephani Liesmaki, spokeswoman for the Minnesota Family Council, said the group has no problem with the restroom redesign. That’s because transgender students would not be in the same space as their peers behind closed doors, which they say raises safety concerns.

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However, the group still worries about giving transgender students access to their preferred gender-specific locker rooms at Johnson. Locker rooms are not part of the renovation.

Katrina Plotz, youth and schools program director with OutFront Minnesota, said many schools have been adding gender-neutral facilities. Some have converted existing restrooms, while others have done so with new construction. Johnson is the first school she’s heard of that’s converting all of its restrooms.

She said the renovation will make transgender, nonbinary and gender-nonconforming students more comfortable at school.

Beyond those students, she said, “I think it benefits everybody just from a standpoint of having a more private, single-stall bathroom experience. I think a lot of people might enjoy that.”

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