New Paltz High School (NPHS) added two gender neutral bathrooms on each floor in order to accommodate the 20 transgender students enrolled this year. The New Paltz Board of Education approved a policy calling for the addition of these two single-stall facilities back in June, but New Paltz High School junior Aaron Wesdorp was the catalyst.
Wesdorp, who is a transgender man, felt uncomfortable using strictly male or female restrooms. The transgender students were permitted to use single-stall faculty bathrooms.
Last year, as a sophomore, Wesdorp drafted a petition to express the need for the addition of gender neutral bathrooms in the school. Wesdorp said that the majority of people and classes he approached were supportive and willing to help, especially when he was able to explain to his peers why this change was necessary.
“These bathrooms have made the school environment safer and easier on gender nonconforming students that come to school,” he said.
After gathering about 110 signatures, Wesdorp presented it to the New Paltz Board of Education in the spring. Wesdorp attended the meeting with the president of the school’s Gay-Straight Alliance and read what he had prepared when the board members handed the floor to the public to address issues outside of the meeting’s agenda.
“Maria Rice, the superintendent, thought that there already was a gender neutral bathroom and offered to fix the situation ASAP,” Wesdorp said.
Wesdorp is a member of NPHS’ Gay-Straight Alliance, co-advised by Lisa St. John and Joanna Arkans, the club’s media specialist. The club aims to spread awareness of LGBTQIA+ issues throughout the school community. Some of the events they sponsor include No Name Calling Week, Ally Week, Day of Silence and LGBTQIA+ History Month.
The club also attends Pride Works conferences and shares what they learn with the rest of the school.
According to the Pride Works website, each conference is a “full-day educational experience that promotes a positive message, teaches leadership skills and fosters a sense of community for LGBTQ youth, their allies and the adults in their lives in the lower Hudson Valley.”
St. John said she is incredibly proud of Wesdorp’s actions last spring and that he is an amazing force in the club.
“He is proactive and knowledgeable about LGBTQ issues,” she said. “He raises the level of enthusiasm for projects and he helps get things done.”
Fourth-year photography and art education major at SUNY New Paltz Connor Henderson is one of the co-presidents of Pride, a group dedicated to providing support, a safe haven to those who are a part of the LGBTQIA+ community. Henderson said that it is rare to hear about this type of action at a high school level and was thrilled to learn about NPHS.
“I believe that it is necessary for young people to step up and advocate for change,” he said. “We are the next generation of this country and we need to make the changes we want to see because no one else is going to do it for us.”
In May, the Obama administration advised public schools to allow transgender students to use whichever bathroom they identify with in order to promote a “nondiscriminatory school environment.”
Additionally, the Title IX civil rights law was updated to address sex discrimination towards those who do not conform sex stereotypes. Schools that do not comply risk the loss of federal funding.
According to an article published by The Hudson Valley News Network, two out of the remaining school districts in Ulster County responded to inquiries regarding their accommodations for transgender students. Despite repeated phone calls, the other seven districts, including Kingston and Saugerties, could not be reached.
In Onteora schools, transgender students may use faculty restrooms or the one in the nurse’s office, according to Superintendent Bruce Watson. At Highland schools, administrators said they are making adjustments where needed by providing alternative facilities and increased privacy.