When 16-year-old Evan Gabbey arrived for his first day of Grade 11 this year at Sturgeon Composite High School in Namao, he was shocked at some changes to the washroom facilities.

While in the past there were separate washrooms for males and females, some new multi-stalled bathrooms were built to be shared by both genders in order to accommodate all gender identities.

"We had a renovation that happened and with those renovations there was a lot of new gender-neutral bathrooms," said Gabbey, adding students at the school just north of Edmonton weren't notified of the changes beforehand.

'Students were not happy'

"A lot of students were not happy. There was a lot of unrest. It was the talk of the school for the first few days," said Gabbey.

Sturgeon Composite High School

Some people aren't happy over changes to the washrooms at Sturgeon Composite High School. (Alberta Government)

While the initial anger was over the fact that students weren't consulted, concerns soon turned to logistical issues for those who prefer to use the few available gender-specific washrooms located at the very front of the school and out of the way from many classrooms.

Lineups for those washrooms can get long, Gabbey said.

'You can peek both over and under'

Another issue is that the multi-stalled gender neutral toilets are in stalls where the dividers don't extend to the floor or the ceiling. 

"You can peek both over and under so that's a privacy issue right there," Gabbey said.

While students are using the gender-neutral washrooms, those who don't feel comfortable aren't being properly accommodated, Gabbey suggested.

"We're not against the gender-neutral washrooms," he said. "What we're against is the fact that, based on population, the number of people who need gender-neutral washrooms, who require and prefer those accommodations, is very, very small.

"Yet we've gone way above that line and made almost all of the washrooms gender-neutral." 

Principal John Baldassarre defended the ratio of gender-neutral washrooms to gender-specific bathrooms. 

He noted that in addition to some locker-room bathrooms and single-stall washrooms in classrooms, there is one set of gender-specific washrooms in the front foyer, with three male and three female stalls.

The gender-neutral washrooms include 10 stalls, three of which are urinals. 

Gabbey notes that plans for renovations include the addition of two single-stall washrooms, similar to those found in homes, with floor-to-ceiling walls and a door. He thinks those should be adequate for gender-neutral needs.

"We were hoping that we could just allocate those as gender-neutral washrooms and make all the multi-stalled ones male and female," said Gabbey.

He took his concerns and suggestions to Baldassarre.

'Going to stay the way it is'

"He didn't indicate any changes are coming — that it was just going to stay the way it is," said Gabbey, who then decided to start a petition.

Out of a student body of about 680 students, 330 have signed the petition, which calls for additional separate female and male washrooms.

The gender-neutral washrooms have also drawn the attention of some parents, including Gibbons, Alta., deputy mayor Amber Harris, whose daughter is in Grade 11 at Sturgeon Composite High School.

Harris, who stressed she was commenting on the issue as a parent and not as an elected official, created a Facebook page called "SCHS Washroom Fiasco." It includes pictures of the gender-neutral washrooms — something she makes clear she's not totally against.

Facebook page against washrooms

Amber Harris created this Facebook page for those opposed to the changes to the washrooms at Sturgeon Composite High School. (Facebook)

"I think that if we can make accommodations for as many people as possible then that's a good thing," said Harris.  

But when she learned about the design and what she believes is a lack of privacy, she became concerned.

'Raised red flags for me'

"The stalls didn't go from floor to ceiling, they were not self-contained units and obviously, as a parent, that raised red flags for me," she said. "We have kids [elsewhere] committing suicide because of photos that were distributed throughout their school and the internet. This, to me, just feels like we're setting this up for disaster."

Privacy concerns over washrooms at Sturgeon Composite High School

Parents and students are concerned about privacy due to the open design of the stalls in the gender-neutral washrooms. ( Charity Tober)

Harris was also upset over the lack of consultation with parents. She contacted the principal, the school board and her MLA but wasn't satisfied with the responses.

She believes the majority of the students won't use the gender-neutral washrooms, and agrees with Gabbey that they are creating logistical problems. She, too, thinks a couple of single-stall washrooms would be adequate.

'Brings back shades of 1950s segregation'

Baldassarre disagrees.

"Well, imagine being somebody who's part of an LGBTQ community or somebody who has an identity or a diversity issue ... being forced to have to go use a specific washroom," the principal said. "I mean for me personally it brings back shades of 1950s segregation in the southern U.S. 

"We just don't do that here. We have an inclusive community environment and so students should have choice. They should not be forced to go and use one stall because that's their stall."

Baldassarre said there has been communication with parents.

"There has been quite a bit of information that has come out right from the very beginning when we had a parent evening that was here in the design phase," he said.

'I have to provide choice'

Baldassarre said so far there have been no privacy issues in the gender-neutral washrooms, and he hasn't seen any lineups at the gender-specific washrooms.

Still, he admitted the new washrooms involve an adjustment for students, staff and parents, and said some of their concerns are valid.

He also acknowledged that there are more gender-neutral washrooms accessible from the hallways than gender-specific facilities, but others will soon be opening.

Another set of washrooms with 12 stalls is scheduled to open next week. Access to those washrooms will be determined at a board meeting Nov. 22, Baldassarre said.

"At the end of the day, this building is a welcoming community for all students and so in order to do that I have to provide choice," he said.

In an email to the CBC, Alberta Education spokesperson Lindsay Harvey wrote: "We encourage schools to provide gender-neutral washrooms as an option for students — but this is not mandatory. 

"Best practice suggests that non-gendered washrooms be available whenever possible for any student who may need increased privacy and that students are able to access washrooms that correspond with their gender identity."