SPECIAL REPORT: ‘The Bathroom Battle’ investigates gender-neutral bathrooms

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SLEEPY HOLLOW -

It’s a highly charged issue impacting every public school in the state of New York - gender-neutral bathrooms.

‘The Bathroom Battle,’ a special Turn to Tara report, gets up close with unlikely soldiers in Westchester's gender identity battlefield.

Spirit Goodwin is the first openly gender-queer student at Sleepy Hollow High School, and opened up to News 12 about their struggles. “I don't use ‘he or she’ pronouns because I don't ID [as] male or female.”

Goodwin says it’s really difficult for a child to question their gender identity. “I remember when I was younger, standing in front of the mirror after taking a shower and just looking at myself and not feeling like I was me. I knew I wasn’t [a] girl and wasn't a boy.”

Spirit's school has one of the most diverse populations in affluent Westchester County, but is, perhaps, best known for its most famous alumnus - Caitlyn Jenner.

Caitlyn Jenner, who attended the school as Bruce Jenner, ran track and played football back in the 1960s. In fact, an award is still given out in Jenner's honor today.

Spirit says, as hard as school officials try, there is still much work to be done. “It’s not a safe space in my school when you don't have easily accessible bathrooms and you have to figure which stall to go in and hallway with the least amount of bullying.”

Spirit is talking about the two faculty bathrooms on campus that were recently converted to gender-neutral stalls.

They say using them usually means having to apologize for being late. "They are so far separated from the general classrooms it take forever to get there. And then you get in trouble for being in the bathroom for too long because it’s taking away from [the] classroom."

It is a stressful situation Spirit thinks could be resolved with the addition of more single-stall bathrooms spread throughout campus. “There are places more within school that they can add gender-neutral bathrooms, they just don't want to because it’s a controversial thing.”

School officials did not want to speak on camera about Spirit’s comments, but told News 12 they are in full compliance with state and federal laws.

Under President Barack Obama's administration, public schools were ordered to let students use the restroom of their choice. However, the Trump administration revoked the policy, leaving it up to individual schools and states to grapple with a question.

The investigation found people have to look in two places to find out the policies in New York. Back in 2015, the state Board of Education issued a special guidance stating that unisex bathrooms should be made available, but never forced on students.

However, it wasn't until last year that it became a violation under the state's bullying laws to deny restrooms based on gender identity.

Lisa Scott, who runs WJCS Center Lane, the county's only education center geared specifically to LGBTQ youth, says the bathroom battle has real effects on students. “If you can't use [the]  bathroom at school, you will often choose not to go to school. The dropout rate, failing rate, for LGBTQ, especially trans, is higher than straight kids. We also know our trans youth have a huge problem with urinary tract infections and bladder infections because they hold in their urine because they can't expel it safety,” says Scott.

According to new data just released by the CDC, nearly 2% of high school students in America identify as transgender, with more than a third of them attempting suicide in the past year alone. Which is why Scott says the laws need to be more clearly defined. “I do not believe the language in this document provides the clarity schools need to adequately address trans students’ needs.”

The Turn to Tara investigative team took an in-depth look over several months to see how many Westchester schools are making the grade as it relates to bathroom access. It found several districts have room for improvement.

Eight out of 40 districts lack set-aside, gender-neutral stalls. This forces students to seek out staff bathrooms during school hours.

White Plains is a district that fully embraces gender-neutral bathrooms. “We have gender-neutral bathrooms all the way down to kindergarten. We are real clear about it. For me, it’s a civil rights issue. It’s about access and equity. This is how we do things in New York and Westchester. It’s good for kids,” says School Superintendent Dr. Joseph Ricca.

Video: "The Bathroom Battle" Extended interviews:

 

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