Sixteen-year-old Dionne Malikowski, a transgender student at Colorado’s Fort Collins High School, was recently suspended for three days for using the girl’s restroom.
Dionne had been told by school administrators that, due to “safety concerns,” she may only use the staff restrooms but not the female bathroom facilities provided to the rest of the student body. Malikowski admits that she had been given a warning prior to her three-day suspension but says she finds the entire segregated bathroom issue unfair. The school maintains its position that it must consider “safety issues.”
The 16-year-old high school junior told 7NEWS she was suspended about a month ago for violating the school policy by using a girls’ restroom instead of a staff restroom.
“The day that I used the girls’ bathroom, I was in a hurry because I really had to go,” Dionne explained.
“All the students at Fort Collins High School have access to restrooms,” said Danielle Clark, spokeswoman for the Poudre School District.But there are rules about which restrooms Dionne can use — and she can only use the staff restrooms. “When those disruptions happen, it can cause safety issues to come into play,” Clark said.
“I don’t think I’m going to get harassed in the female bathroom. I think it would be more of a safety issue if I was using the male’s bathroom,” Dionne argued. Dionne previously received warnings for a similar violation but she believes that the rule was unfair and discriminating.”I want to be able to use the girls’ bathroom without being harassed for it or suspended or having charges pressed against me,” Dionne said.
A male trans student from the school has also spoken up about this issue saying that he too has been told he must use the staff bathrooms rather than the mens’ restrooms. LGBT rights groups have said that this position is unfair, and that it makes trans students out to be the problem when what the school should really be doing is focusing on tolerance and respect.
It has been offered however that the school is in fact trying to strike a balance between individual rights and school safety and that while district policy mandates that students be allowed equal access to bathrooms it could be said that, given the abundance of staff bathrooms, the school has in fact found a middle ground that satisfies all concerns.
PSD Board of Education President Nancy Tellez said that the use of staff bathrooms for transgender students falls under a district policy that states that all students should be provided equal educational opportunities regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation or special needs.
“That’s the policy that comes into play in situations like this,” Tellez said. “Its intent is to provide equal opportunity to all students. It would seem to me that every student should have the opportunity to use the bathroom.”
Tellez said that she believes the requirement to use the staff bathrooms does provide an equal opportunity for transgender students, as seven staff bathrooms are spread throughout the school.
Others have argued, as Dionne has done, that this is not about access to the facilities itself but the climate the school is fostering by making trans students use staff bathrooms and therein marking them as different from the rest of the student body.
Claire Raccuglia, counseling and programming intern with the Lambda Community Center in Fort Collins, which promotes and supports diversity, said she is “unsure” of how the school can enforce a policy forcing students to use staff bathrooms.
“To enforce such a policy would be discriminatory,” Raccuglia said. “It’s important to have compassion for people’s ignorance, but at the same time, our schools are supposed be one of the safest places our children can learn and do things safely, like eat and use the bathroom.”
While many schools cite safety concerns as the foundations of bathroom-use policies, Raccuglia said that enforcing a policy that clearly distinguished students from their peers is far more dangerous.
“It’s a step backward to say it’s not safe, so they won’t integrate,” Raccuglia said. “If a student were getting beat up in the bathroom for having red hair, they wouldn’t ban red-haired kids from using a specific bathroom.”
Raccuglia goes on to recommend gender neutral bathrooms as a solution to this issue, though she recognizes that there is no perfect answer.
Dionne’s mother Melissa Malikowski has said she plans to transfer her daughter to Centennial High School because she doesn’t feel her daughter is safe at Fort Collins, citing that her daughter has received “grief” from other students. She feels that the school’s actions have reinforced bullying behavior by treating Dionne differently from other students, in effect making her daughter that much more of a target.