SKOWHEGAN — The uproar at a school board meeting earlier this month over a local woman’s concern that new multi-gender bathrooms at the high school took away attention from “normal” kids was a simmering issue that had its roots last year when LGBTQ+ students raised alarms about bullying and harassment.

The push for changes to the school’s bathrooms began last spring, when students brought up the concerns in response to a series of Instagram posts made by an anonymous account directly targeting LGBTQ+ students.

The account, “skowheganlegends1,” posted online comments with explicit and derogatory language aimed at LGBTQ+ students, including previously unreported threats to “start roasting people” and give them “a swirly with my piss in the urinal.”

Although the account was eventually deleted, the messages left students within the LGBTQ+ community feeling unsafe and unsupported. In response, recent school renovations completed in November aimed to also increase privacy and safety for all students using bathrooms. Separately, the school also put up signage at a few bathrooms indicating they could be used by males and females.

Even so, at least one local parent says those efforts have been limited in scope and the issue has highlighted a lack of involvement between Skowhegan-area school officials and LGBTQ+ students.

Andrew Bourassa, a parent of a senior at the high school, noted that the only options for students seeking to use a multi-gender bathroom at the high school are the private bathrooms, but they are not accessible after school and students need to ask for permission to use the facilities. He acknowledges that there are single-use stalls that can be used after school at the Somerset Career and Technical Center, but they are a third of a mile away from the gymnasium and auditorium, where most students, including his child, spend their time after school.

“The big thing is access. There is no access to these (multi-gender) bathrooms after 3:30 p.m. and students have to out themselves just to use the bathroom during the day,” Bourassa said.

“There’s no outreach,” he added, referring to school officials. “They don’t even have resources for the population of LGBTQ+ students at this school.”

These issues came to a boiling point at the Jan. 9 board meeting for Maine School Administrative District 54, when a community member addressed the board with concerns about mascot selection and “gender-neutral” bathrooms at Skowhegan Area High School. MSAD 54 serves the towns of Canaan, Cornville, Mercer, Norridgewock, Skowhegan and Smithfield.

Gloria Gordon, 66, of Skowhegan, who has worked in the district as a substitute teacher, questioned the district’s rationale on changing bathrooms from gender specific to gender-neutral. “I know (the bathrooms) are bisexual now or whatever,” Gordon said on Jan. 9, “and I guess there’s a problem with how they are labeled.”

School Board Chairwoman Lynda Quinn then said that Gordon’s remark was the first instance of a problem with gender-neutral bathroom labeling that she had heard that night.

Gordon continued, “If it’s changed to queers or lesbians or whatever you want to put up there, you’re taking away from the majority of the kids that are screwing around with bi or trans or whatever. I have no problems with bis or trans, but it’s taking so much away from the kids that are normal.”

Superintendent Brent Colbry announced at this past Thursday’s board meeting that Gordon had resigned from her position in the district.

 

PRIVACY IN FOCUS

According to Colbry, Assistant Superintendent Jon Moody, Skowhegan Area High School Principal Bruce Mochamer and Assistant Principal Jason Bellerose, the multi-use bathrooms at the high school are labeled with the images used for male/female. There are private, single-use stalls located in the administrative office, guidance office and Somerset Career and Technical Center  classrooms. Additionally, the school has 15 women’s stalls in five locations and 12 men’s stalls in four locations.

Bathroom updates were completed over the summer to increase privacy and safety for all students using bathrooms and completed in November. The decision to make the renovations is done by the Support Services Committee, which looks at the needs of the district and uses money from the schools’ maintenance fund to complete projects.

“The conversation about wanting to do some work in the bathroom area did not have anything to do with a single incident,” Colbry said. “It was a broader conversation about making them safer and more private.”

A remodeled bathroom, seen at Skowhegan Area High School on Wednesday, features full-length toilet stall doors. Each stall also has its own light that is triggered when the stall is entered. The bathroom is one of several to be remodeled at the school.

Colbry said that changes to the bathroom include floor-to-ceiling doors, lockable doors from the inside and new lighting and ventilation. Signage did not change during the renovation.

According to a memo by the Maine Department of Education dated Jan. 2016, “Students must be permitted to use the toilet, locker room and shower facilities corresponding to their gender identity. Facilities such as curtained changing areas or unisex facilities may be provided and made available to all students, but should not be used to isolate or segregate students based on their sexual orientation, gender expression or gender identity.”

Gender identity is defined in the memo as “an individual’s sincerely held core belief regarding their gender, whether that individual identifies as male, female, a blend of both, neither, or in some other way.” This includes students who identify as “queer,” “bi-gender,” “intersex” or “gender fluid.”

The use of the word “queer” in the LGBTQ+ community has been reclaimed throughout the decades. When used by a person within the LGBTQ+ community as a way to identify, the term is not considered derogatory.

After the Jan. 9 board meeting, Board Chairwoman Lynda Quinn released a statement, saying that Gordon’s comments were not reflective of the district’s values and beliefs.

“A member of the audience made a number of biased and hateful comments directed toward some of our students,” the letter reads. “Those statements were utterly inappropriate and have no place in this public forum, and certainly no place in our schools.”

“We must provide a safe environment for all students. We regret not shutting those comments down sooner and want to apologize to anyone who was offended by what was said and to assure them and our entire community that speech of that nature is not acceptable in MSAD 54 and will not be tolerated,” the letter continues.

 

GORDON SPEAKS OUT

Gordon, meanwhile, says that she felt bullied after the Jan. 9 meeting by community members. She sent Quinn an email after the meeting addressing her concerns.

“I am deeply upset about what was written in the paper,” Gordon’s letter says, referring to the Morning Sentinel’s story about the meeting. “Nothing I said at the board meeting was hateful. It was all just my opinion. I did not raise my voice in hate but felt bullied when Margaret (O’Connell) started yelling.”

Margaret O’Connell speaks in favor of the move to bring gender-neutral bathrooms to the school district Thursday during a School Administrative District 54 board meeting at the Skowhegan Area Middle School.

The letter continues, “the gavel was for her to wait her turn, not for me (to) shut up. I continued talking because it was still under my allotted two minutes. I did not attack students at all. I merely stated that the board is taking away from more normal people than others. This was not attacking students.”

“Perhaps I should have said ‘not sexually normal’ the other night. I don’t know. I was not reading just rambling off the top of my head at the moment. Political correctness has gone way too far.”

Gordon says that students brought up their concerns to her about bathroom signage weeks before the Jan. 9 meeting. She has worked with students in schools for more than 33 years, 18 of those as an ed tech.

“I have always had their best interest in mind,” Gordon said in an interview. “I have always been able to connect with students, and have never had a problem with kids. I love kids and hope to continue to work with them.”

Gordon also talked about what she meant when she said “the kids that are normal.”

“I think normal between two people is man and woman,” she said. “That’s what the Bible says, too. Most people consider that normal. I probably should not have said that. I have nothing against women with women and men with men. I’m traditional. I didn’t realize that was going to be the uproar.”

Gordon says that she will no longer attend board meetings. She began coming when conversations about removing the Indians mascot began, a process that has since resulted in the mascot being retired and school officials seeking suggestions for a new name.

“I’m not going again,” Gordon said. “It’s the same people that are there to argue and it’s not worth it to me. I’m too old for this (expletive).”

 

SUPPORTING KIDS

During Thursday night’s school board meeting, Margaret O’Connell, one of the founders of the LGBTQ+ Somerset Social Group, addressed the board during public comment to question the members about gender-neutral bathrooms at the school. “… Our group is not making any demands or specific requests about how this project be completed,” O’Connell said, “just that it be completed as previously outlined by (the administration), so that our gender-expansive students may also realize the increased safety and privacy being experienced by their peers through the recent bathroom renovations.”

Meanwhile, several area schools have taken steps to accommodate multi-gender restrooms as well.

At Nokomis High School in Newport, Principal Mary Nadeau said they for several years have had restrooms designated as gender-neutral, in both their old buildings and their new one completed over the holidays, and there are still multi-stall bathrooms identified by gender as well.

At Maranacook Community High School in Readfield, Vice Principal Tina Brackley said the school has two gender-neutral bathrooms that are single-stall and are accessible before, during and after school. Brackley said she hasn’t been aware of any concerns involving bullying, vandalism or safety linked to the bathrooms.

In Winslow, high school Principal Chad Bell said the school does not have any gender-neutral bathrooms now, although “I wish we were able to have them.”

“When there is a student who may be transitioning, we always meet with that student and ask: what are your preferences?” Bell said. “If they want to use the boys’ room, they’re allowed to by law. If they’re uncomfortable doing that, there is one bathroom in the nurse’s office, one in (the admin) office and we work with them to figure out whatever they want to be comfortable.”

Signage for a gender-neutral bathroom is seen Wednesday on a door in the main office of Skowhegan Area High School.

Bourassa, the parent of a Skowhegan high school senior, is part of the LGBTQ+ Somerset Social Group. Bourassa has been requesting updates from administration on bathroom signage for weeks. The group was created at the end of summer 2019 in response to issues associated with the Indians mascot change.

In an email dated Dec. 18, 2019, to board member Jennifer Poirier, high school Assistant Principals William Vigue and Jason Bellrose, Assistant Superintendent Jon Moody, Superintendent Brent Colbry and Chairwoman Lynda Quinn and others, the group requested an update on the renovations to school bathrooms.

The email notes that last spring the district said renovations would take place over the summer; that at an Aug. 22, 2019, board meeting, it was announced the project had been halted, but was expected to be completed in the next few weeks; that at the Nov. 7, 2019, meeting, it was reported to the community that renovations were complete, though the only gender-neutral bathroom was located in the administrative office.

“The stated goal of this project was to enhance privacy and accessibility for students seeking gender-neutral restroom options, noting the number of incidents of harassment that had occurred during the 2018-2019 school year targeting trans and gender-expansive students,” the email reads.

In the email, the group requested an increase in the number of accessible gender-neutral restrooms, arguing that the ones in the administrative office are not public.

Representatives from LGBTQ+ Somerset Social say that their group is aware of at least six former middle school and high school students who have left the district over the last few years and who identified as trans or gender-expansive. School officials were not able to confirm or provide any information on students leaving the district.

“I’m hesitant to share specifics if those numbers are low because the students are identifiable,” Moody said.

Lynda Quinn, chairwoman of the School Administrative District 54 Board of Directors, requests people not talk about the Indians mascot Thursday during the public comment portion of the meeting at Skowhegan Area Middle School.

Bourassa said that after he talked with school administration last spring, he was told that the gender-neutral bathrooms would be an option. Later on, Bourassa said that options, including the possibility of a multi-unit gender-neutral bathroom, were discussed.

“We didn’t pitch that, (administration) did,” Bourassa said. “For the safety of my own child, I would always pitch a single-stall.”

Though Gordon’s comments sparked a reaction from the community following the meeting, Colbry said that while it has been discussed within the hallways, it has not been a focal point of conversations. Additionally, since the beginning of the school year, the administrators said they have not received any complaints about the bathrooms.

Skowhegan Area High School, which serves about 800 students, saw a 5.1% increase in students reporting that they feel safe at school, which is 1% higher than the state average, according to the Maine Integrated Youth Health Survey, which is given every two years to all students in Maine middle and high schools. The survey further found a 4.5% increase in students reporting that they feel “adults in your school address conflict, negative language, bullying in positive ways to help students,” 4% higher than the state average; and a 5.7% reduction in students reporting that they were “bullied at school.”

“The only metrics that I’ve seen were positive,” Moody said about the survey results. “The idea that we’re a school where staff aren’t supporting kids, the data just doesn’t support that.”

Moody also emphasized the ongoing efforts to make the hallways inviting and welcoming for all students. This includes a letter sent out to parents, staff and students on April 25, 2019, addressing biased-based harassment; a staff training provided by the Attorney General’s Office titled, “Challenging Bias and Harassment in Our Schools”; districtwide workshops with staff that address the importance of being Trauma Informed with an emphasis on the importance of fostering an acceptance culture with students; the Day of Welcome on Oct. 25; a student presentation in December titled, “We Don’t Talk this Way Here,” led by administration; and several teacher workshops.

“There’s no greater advocates than (Mochamer, Moody and Bellerose,)” Colbry said Tuesday. “They’ve spent endless hours chasing down any complaints and concerns, talking to kids and parents. They work very hard.”

At Thursday’s school board meeting, the tone of the public comment had changed from previous meetings. Quinn, the board chairwoman, reminded people to stick to a two- or two-and-a-half minute time and to avoid talking about the Indian mascot as the selection process for a new name has kicked off.

“I can’t tell you what to think or say, but I can control the narrative,” Quinn said.

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