IW School Board Talks Unisex Bathrooms – Smithfield Times
According to an estimate by RRMM Architects, renovating the men’s and women’s bathrooms in the hall of Smithfield High School into a single combined gender-neutral installation would cost just under $410,000.
Superintendent Dr. Jim Thornton raised the matter at a special meeting on January 26, saying he had been asked months ago to look into the idea.
But the Isle of Wight County School Board has not yet authorized such renovations.
The estimate, Thornton said, is “just to give the board an understanding” of the cost, “if that’s something you want to pursue.”
According to RRMM’s examples, the unisex design would include floor-to-ceiling cubicles — essentially placing each toilet in its own closet-sized room — and an open-concept sink.
The idea is to create “a place for all the kids to feel comfortable, if they don’t want to use the current toilet,” Thornton said.
“We hear this request from state school systems,” said Jeff Harris, co-director of RRMM’s K-12 design studio. “It’s controversial, as you can imagine, and we’re not promoting one way or another.”
State law required school boards to adopt protections for transgender students at the start of the current school year that are “consistent with” or “more comprehensive than” policies recommended by the Virginia Department of Education. regarding use of bathrooms, locker rooms, student privacy, harassment, dress codes, and gender-specific school activities. Allowing transgender students to use the bathroom of their choice became standard case law in 2021 when the United States Supreme Court refused to hear a final appeal by Grimm against Gloucester County School Board.
The case began in 2015 when Gavin Grimm, then a 15-year-old student at Gloucester County High School, sued the Gloucester School Board over a policy that required him to only use rooms bathing suit corresponding to her sex at birth – female – or single. – user bathrooms. In 2020, after a five-year legal battle, the United States 4th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled the ban unconstitutional.
According to Harris, combining the currently separate men’s and women’s bathrooms in the lobby of Smithfield High into a single 900-square-foot unisex facility would involve replacing the concrete slab under the existing floor and all of the plumbing — in addition to treating every individual cabin as its own room for ventilation purposes. Based on the current construction market and other factors, Harris estimated the job at $454.72 per square foot.
“It’s an expensive business to retrofit an existing restroom,” Harris said. “It’s doable, but it’s expensive.
The school board selected RRMM in 2020 as the architectural firm of choice for the proposed replacement of Westside Elementary School with a middle school that would house students in grades 5-7. Designing the new school with unisex bathrooms from the start would be an “easier task to accomplish” than an afterthought renovation, Harris said.
“Legally, I don’t think we’ll have a choice…it wouldn’t make sense, if we chose the new building, not to plan to have gender-neutral washrooms,” Vice President Michael Cunningham said.
District 1 Board Member John Collick agreed a court order could be issued in the near future and said he was “a big fan” of the floor-to-ceiling stand concept, but “still would like to see gender segregation as much as possible.”
A county resident – Nicholas Mitchell – also spoke about the proposed gender-neutral restrooms during the meeting’s public comment period, advocating that the school board “leave them as is.”
“If you open a bathroom for a boy to go in while my daughter is in it, I’m going to rain hell on this school district and this board,” Mitchell said.