For many students, a trip to the bathroom is like any typical part of the school day. They grab a hall pass and relieve themselves before returning to class and going about business as usual. Those students have no reason to believe their safety and privacy will be in jeopardy based on how they present their gender, who they date, or the body they were born with.
However, for LGBTQ+ students, safety may not be guaranteed while performing the basic human act of using the bathroom.
In 2019, a survey conducted by the Gay, Lesbian, & Straight Education Network found that one in five LGBTQ students (18%) and two in five transgender students (39%) in Connecticut were unable to use the school bathroom aligned with their gender. The same survey found that among transgender and nonbinary students, those in schools with transgender/nonbinary student policies or guidelines were less likely to experience anti-LGBTQ discrimination in their school than transgender and nonbinary students in schools without such policies and guidelines. Of course, in order to have such a positive effect, those policies must be appropriately enforced – actions speak louder than words.
Under the Waterbury Board of Education policy no. 5145.53(a): “Students shall have access to the restroom that corresponds to their gender identity consistently asserted at school. Any student, transgender or not, who has a need or desire for increased privacy, regardless of the underlying reason, should be provided access to a single user restroom.”
It has been over a year since the Waterbury Board of Education (WBOE) voted to pass a policy giving access to single-use bathrooms available to students identifying as transgender. In previous years, some students were allowed to use the nurse’s bathroom, but this wasn’t a sustainable solution that allows students the privacy required to feel safe and whole. However, this has since changed with the WBOE’s decision, leaving students without that option.
Students now have to choose between using facilities that align with their gender assigned at birth, putting them at risk of harassment or victimization, or waiting to get home to use the bathroom after an eight-hour school day. When students are risking dehydration in order to avoid having to relieve themselves at school, lack of all-access or gender neutral bathrooms is a health issue.
As part of my graduate program at the UConn School of Social Work, I joined Radical Advocates for Cross-Cultural Education (RACCE) as its Community Organizing Intern and now serve as a member. The National Association of Social Workers’ Code of Ethics requires that we commit ourselves to dismantling the systems of oppression that keep individuals and whole communities down and threaten their survival. RACCE’s work fully aligns with that commitment by challenging racism, homophobia, and other forms of oppression and inequity facing Waterbury’s students.
The current status of the implementation and enforcement of policy 5145.53 is unknown. We have had direct interaction with multiple Waterbury students who have affirmed that very little or nothing has changed. In some instances, we have been told that access to safe and inclusive restrooms has become even more difficult.
To be clear, my values and RACCE’s organizational values require that we address this issue with organizing, outreach and advocacy just like any other moral or ethical concern that results in the disparate treatment of students. Now we see that this is a student rights issue that may require legal advocacy.
As a collective of organizers and members, we urge policymakers to establish a transformative change by substantially providing bathrooms, locker rooms, and other safe spaces for our LGBTQ+ students. The Waterbury Public School District must use funding from the American Rescue Plan to address this immediately.
Our city has the resources to make that change happen. I ask you to stand by our students through actions, not words alone. In doing so, you will show LGBTQ+ students that their health, safety, and dignity truly matter.
Madison Alexander is a member of RACCE in Waterbury.