Mixed-gender changing room at St. Stephen Middle School causes stir among parents

St. Stephen Middle School will be home to the first mixed-gender changing room in the Anglophone South School District. That isn't sitting well with some parents.

Single changing area with locking cubicles would be installed starting this summer

St. Stephen Middle School will be home to the first mixed-gender changing room in the Anglophone South School District. (Submitted by Karen Way)

St. Stephen Middle School will be home to the first mixed-gender changing room in the Anglophone South School District.

Parents of students at the school were notified that starting in summer 2018, separate changing rooms for boys and girls will be replaced by a single, large area with 28 floor-to-ceiling cubicles, each with a locking door.

The existing facilities "needed to be upgraded," according to Anglophone South School District Superintendent Zoe Watson.

The school commissioned an architect to design a draft plan for the new changing room. They would also have self-contained washrooms, one of which would be wheelchair accessible.

The architect's draft plan for the proposed change room. The space would also have self-contained washrooms, including one that would be wheelchair accessible. (Submitted by the Anglophone South School District)

"Change rooms are challenging for staff to ‎supervise," said Watson, because male teachers can't go into the girls changing rooms and female teachers can't go into the boys change rooms.

"As a result there can be bullying, teasing and other inappropriate behaviour."

The new concept would allow teachers to "supervise this area, and each student would have a private and locked space to change."

'Who even came up with this?'

Similar co-ed facilities exist in Calgary,  as well as at pools and health clubs in Sweden and the United Kingdom.

But all genders changing in the same room — even a room with individual locking stalls — isn't sitting well with some parents.

Carole Way's daughter is in Grade 7 at St. Stephen Middle School.

"I was like, 'Whaaaat?' At first I was like, who even came up with this?" said Way, who heard about the renovations just before March break.

"As soon as someone says they're taking out the wall between the boys and girls changing room, you're left to imagine that boys and girls are now changing in front of each other."

Even though that isn't the case, she still thinks the change is "not necessary."

Students "don't need to be thinking about the girl who is in the stall right next to them when they're getting changed for gym," Way said.

'We were created male and female'

Students who don't feel comfortable using the new changing room can go in the bathroom and lock the door, Watson said, adding some students already line up to do that instead of using the communal changing facilities.

But Way's opinion is that the issue goes deeper than where kids get changed for gym.

St. Stephen town council initially opposed allowing the Gay-Straight Alliance at St. Stephen Middle to paint a rainbow crosswalk. (Shane Fowler/CBC)

"I happen to be one of those people who think we were created male and female," she said.

"Some people don't fit in those boxes, but the majority of us do. To take away our maleness and femaleness is just wrong. There's a time and a place for everything, and I don't think the middle school changing room is in the place."

It's not the first time gender issues have caused controversy at St. Stephen Middle School, which made headlines in fall 2017 when town councillors blocked a proposal to build a rainbow crosswalk at the school. (Council later backpedalled on that decision.)

What's between the girls should be between the girls, and what's between the boys should be between the boys.- Karen Douglas, grandmother

Watson said the renovations have nothing to do with LGBTQ issues, but rather providing a "safe, secure place for all students."

The school district is also moving toward providing bathrooms for students who aren't assigned to either gender, she said.

"Not a gender-neutral bathroom: just a bathroom that anyone can go in. Sometimes kids today just want a private bathroom."

Safe, secure place for all students

The changes were discussed at a March 21 meeting of the parent-school support committee.

Way's husband attended the meeting: While some parents thought it was a "wonderful idea," she said, others were "completely irate. One woman left and slammed the door."

Karen Douglas, whose 11-year-old granddaughter attends the school, called it a "horrible" idea.

"It's bad judgment to do that to children at the height of puberty," she said. "There is no possible way one teacher can watch 28 stalls and make sure that there is no teasing, snickering, making fun of, [and other] goings-on."

School district superintendent Zoe Watson said the renovations are intended to provide a 'safe, secure place for all students.' (Submitted by Carole Way)

"Times are changing, but young boys and young girls are still young boys and girls at the beginning of puberty, and they need that privacy and respect. What's between the girls should be between the girls, and what's between the boys should be between the boys."

Parents wondered what happens if door locks get broken, and occasions when more than 28 students are using the changing room.

"Once kids have changed, unless they're all kept in the changing room area, they'll be out in the gym unsupervised," Way said.

According to the school district, there would rarely be more than 28 students using the gym at one time — and the floor plan includes additional smaller spaces with benches that teams could use as change rooms if needed.

The renovations are expected to get underway this summer.

It's estimated they will take four months.

About the Author

Julia Wright

Julia Wright is a reporter based in Saint John. She has been with the CBC since 2016.

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