Hanover County is in the process of replacing John M. Gandy Elementary School in Ashland. Plans for the new building, discussed at a school board meeting last week, include nongendered, single-occupant bathrooms.
Individual toilets will be behind floor-to-ceiling partitions, while the sink area will be open to the hallway.
“These toilet rooms are open to the corridor. Each individual stall, the doors go from the floor up to the ceiling, and there is no gap,” said Josh Bower, an architect on the project, during the board meeting. “Every single stall has complete privacy.”
A Hanover County official also told VPM News in an email that in addition to improving privacy, the school’s bathroom layout will help protect students.
“The primary goal of this design is to increase student safety, which is of paramount importance to us, and decrease potential damage to restrooms. For instance, we anticipate this design will help reduce instances of bullying, fighting, and vandalism that occur in these areas,” wrote Hanover County Public School spokesperson Chris Whitley.
Wes Perkins, a professor at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in New York state, said that reflects the traditional belief that most bullying occurs in areas with low supervision, like bathrooms. But a 2014 study in middle schools conducted by Perkins and his colleagues found that wasn’t the case.
“The big picture was that more bullying was being experienced in the hallways, classrooms and in the lunchroom,” he said. “In one sense, it should not be surprising because of the amount of time that is spent [in those areas].”
Perkins said the individual stalls won’t end bullying, but they could help prevent it in bathrooms, where research shows transgender students often feel unsafe.
“If [students] can have these individualized rooms where they’re not there with somebody else, they may feel certainly more privacy, somewhat more protection,” he said. “Bullying rates in those kind of environments … may occur much less than it is now.”
Whitley said HCPS plans to use the single-occupant bathroom design for all the elementary schools it’s planning to build during the next five years. Currently, Battlefield Park and Washington-Henry elementary schools in Mechanicsville are slated for replacement, in addition to Gandy.
The bathroom layout is not expected to affect the cost to build the new schools, according to Whitley.
Preventing school bullying
Perkins said Hanover County must still vigilantly pursue anti-bullying measures, especially those that target harassment that occurs during class. His 2014 study also found that students bullied in the classroom experienced more fear than those bullied in other locations.
One strategy Perkins suggested to combat bullying: openly talking to children about how common it is. About 25-30% of students engage in bullying, but students perceive it to be more common than that.
“If they think that most others are doing it, then actually more students engage in the bullying than would otherwise,” he said.
In a 2011 study, Perkins and his coauthors found that by displaying posters in a school that reported accurate, local data about how uncommon bullying was, the behavior was reduced.
“Results showed significant reductions in problematic misperceptions of the prevalence of bullying and of peer support for bullying and simultaneous reductions in personal bullying behaviors and experiences of victimization,” the study said. “Students were also more supportive of reporting bullying to school authorities and parents and they came to believe that peers more often supported this behavior than was previously thought to be the case.”
Perkins warned that parents, teachers and administrators should be active in preventing bullying — no matter the school and its design.
“We analyzed this data and broke it down by types of schools — large schools, small schools, middle-sized schools — and that didn’t matter,” he said. “We can’t say that this is something where people might think, ‘Well, not at our school, it has a different social and demographic characteristic.”