When Albemarle County Public Schools discussed renovations to school bathroom facilities last year, they were framed as a response to privacy concerns among students and parents. That conversation is now being framed as a response to complaints of widespread misconduct and even physical violence in bathrooms and locker rooms.
Albemarle County Public Schools Superintendent Matt Haas told The Daily Progress that he plans to remove what he called “gang bathrooms” at Albemarle High School later this summer in an effort to address parents’ complaints that the school has become unsafe in recent months.
Haas has already called for the reintroduction of school resource officers in order to quell any disorder at the school. That decision, however, has been called out by parents who have said officers would not be able to occupy the private spaces, such as bathrooms, where the misconduct is occurring.
“It’s happening in the bathrooms,” parent Cristy Cambio told The Daily Progress earlier this month at a meeting with school board member Judy Le.
Cambio was referring to numerous allegations of misconduct at Albemarle High.
Those allegations run the gamut. Other parents have told The Daily Progress that there has been at least one incident of sexual assault in an Albemarle High locker room involving the school’s junior varsity football team. Other reported incidents include students caught vaping and fighting in the school’s bathrooms.
“The bathrooms are not a safe place,” another parent said at the meeting with Le. And yet another said her kids don’t use school bathrooms at all as a result.
Haas said it’s the design of the bathrooms that are partly to blame.
“They’re called gang bathrooms,” Haas said, referring to what might otherwise be called traditional school bathrooms with multiple stalls and shared sinks.
Such bathrooms allow students to congregate and socialize, but they can also provide a battleground for brawls, a lounge for smoking and a private space away from teachers and administrators for other misconduct.
“You can see the problems that come about with these types of restrooms,” Haas said.
Haas said he believed removing so-called gang bathrooms and replacing them with gender-neutral, single-stall bathrooms will cut down on the number of reported incidents at Albemarle High.
Haas said that “a dozen or so” single-occupancy bathrooms will replace the gang bathrooms on the school’s first floor near the 2009 addition and that similar second-floor bathrooms might be included later. The bathrooms will be unisex, according to county schools spokesman Phil Giaramita. And Haas said they will have sensors to detect when students are vaping.
“We’ll know exactly who [is vaping], because they’ll be single-occupancy,” Haas said.
The renovations are supposed to start this summer, but the design hasn’t been finalized and contractors have not yet started to bid for the project. A design kick-off is expected to start next week, Giaramita said in an email, and contractors are expected to bid in late March.
The money will come out of the roughly $1.4 million the county allocated for school renovations during fiscal-year 2023, Giaramita said.
Other schools across the country have gutted their multiple-occupancy bathrooms in favor of a bathroom with a single toilet and sink. By and large, though, those schools have framed the decision as one that promotes inclusivity, ensuring that transgender and nonbinary students have a safe and private place to use the bathroom. Others have said it can help students with mobility challenges or health issues.
Speaking with The Daily Progress, Haas did not say the decision was related to the needs of transgender and nonbinary students, though he has previously highlighted the new bathrooms’ “privacy” benefits when discussing the renovations in July of last year.
Albemarle High School senior Weining Ding told The Daily Progress she thought replacing the multiple-stall bathrooms with single-occupancy options was a good idea.
“A couple of weeks ago, I was just in the bathroom, changing for practice after school. I don’t know if there was an incident happening outside of my stall, but assistant principals ran into the bathroom,” Ding said.
She said the assistant principals asked who was in the bathroom.
“That’s a little bit alarming if you’re not involved. I think that the single-stall situation would give people some privacy to go into the bathroom,” she said.
Still, the bathrooms as they stand today didn’t seem like a safety risk to her, Ding said.
“I wouldn’t say it’s an unsafe situation. It’s just not ideal,” Ding said.