LOCAL Education

This school is opening the first gender-neutral bathroom in Los Angeles Unified

Santee Education Complex is the first school in the Los Angeles Unified School District to let students of different genders use the same bathroom at the same time.

On Thursday, the circular "girls" sign outside a second-floor bathroom is being replaced by one that says "all-gender restroom." The inside isn't changing at all.

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Starting Friday, the 15-stall bathroom will be open to all 1,780 students at the high school, located in Historic South-Central L.A. just south of downtown. The school's other bathrooms will still be marked for either boys or girls.  

The country's second-largest school district is joining a growing movement toward gender-neutral bathrooms, particularly in California, where state law and L.A. Unified policy already specify that transgender students can use the bathroom of the gender with which they identify. Policies differ elsewhere: In North Carolina, lawmakers passed a bill that restricts which bathrooms transgender people can use, and South Dakota's governor recently vetoed a bill that would have denied students the right to use the bathroom of the gender with which they identify.

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The change at Santee comes as a relief to Alonzo Hernandez, 16, who says he sometimes goes whole school days without using the bathroom. Alonzo transitioned from female to male last fall; students had known him as a girl, so he felt uncomfortable in the boys' restroom. But in January, a custodian stopped him from entering the girls' room.

"Being questioned about my gender ... when I go to use the restroom makes me feel uncomfortable," Alonzo said. "I just want to be able to, you know, use the restroom without being questioned."

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The school's Gay Straight Alliance, a student group, has advocated for the bathroom since January. Members picketed at the school and covered walls with posters proclaiming "It's just a toilet" and "Pee in peace." They wrote about the campaign for High School Insider, L.A. Times' online high school publication, met with students and school administration repeatedly and amassed 700 petition signatures from students and staff.

More people are considering gender not to be binary, and don't identify as either male or female — and that can make it hard to choose a bathroom, students say. 

The shift to gender-neutral bathrooms is more common in colleges than in K-12 schools, and in either setting, gender-neutral bathrooms with more than one stall are rare, said Emily Greytak, director of research for the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network.

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Some schools in the San Francisco Unified School District, for example, have gender-neutral bathrooms, but none of them have multiple stalls so students of different genders do not commingle, district spokeswoman Gentle Blythe said in an email. 

An elementary school in San Francisco Unified took away gender signs from single bathrooms in kindergarten and first-grade classrooms recently, and plans to do the same for multi-stall bathrooms in the older grades.

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At other L.A. Unified schools, students can access single-stall bathrooms in places such as the nurse's office or the staff lounge if they are uncomfortable, said Judy Chiasson, coordinator for the L.A. Unified's Human Relations, Diversity and Equity office.

But single-stall bathrooms are often out of the way, and Santee students wanted their gender-neutral bathroom to be accessible to everyone.

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There are some concerns about the bathroom. Students have joked that their peers would be "making babies" there, alliance faculty advisor Jose Lara said. And parents asked the principal and Lara how they would keep students safe from sexual harassment or bullying.

Both the school's principal and Lara met with parents to discuss such matters. Bullying and harassment can happen in any restroom, Lara said he told parents.

School staff, including the principal, will monitor the bathroom to make sure students behave, and Gay Straight Alliance students will check in regularly. The school also has a texting hotline for students to report incidents.

"School is like a home," Alonzo said. "Everybody should feel comfortable."

Reach Sonali Kohli at Sonali.Kohli@latimes.com or on Twitter @Sonali_Kohli.

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