The YMCA of Silicon Valley has been allowing children 7 years old and younger to join their opposite-sex parents in the locker rooms. But some users of the Palo Alto Family YMCA on Ross Road say the policy opens the door for inappropriate exposure and is disturbing to adult members.
YMCA officials decided this week to lower the age of opposite-gender use of locker rooms to kids age 6 and younger and to better delineate the spaces between adult and family changing areas, which are contiguous.
Some members said the problem is really about dedicating a separate space for family use where kids won't have to risk viewing naked men and women.
YMCA of Silicon Valley has nine locations. Only two of the newer facilities, in East Palo Alto and Mountain View at the El Camino YMCA, have dedicated family changing-room space, according to officials and members.
Elizabeth Jordan, chief operating officer of YMCA of Silicon Valley, said the opposite-sex policy accommodates parents who don't want to leave their kids alone in the same-sex locker room.
"We can't allow a 4-year-old to wander into a locker room unattended," she said. Parents also don't want to change their children on the pool deck or transport them home in wet bathing suits, she added.
At the Palo Alto YMCA, the roughly horseshoe-shaped women's and men's locker rooms have family spaces, but the small changing areas are at the back of the locker rooms and are not partitioned, officials concede. Jordan said it isn't possible to add partitions or curtains because parents need a direct line of sight of their children for safety reasons.
But retired Palo Alto police officer and YMCA member Joe Sparaco said the presence of children of the opposite sex in the locker rooms has made for some disturbing and uncomfortable encounters.
The issue came to his attention a year ago, when a 10-year-old girl came through the locker room and realized there were men in the shower.
"She was shocked. ... She had a towel and was trying to cover up, and she was crying for her dad," Sparaco recalled. "I was beside myself, and I asked to speak to the manager. This was a humiliating moment for her and for other people in the locker room."
The Y did not appear to have signs up then to let people know there was an age limit, but shortly thereafter, signage was added, he recalled. Still, some people choose to ignore it.
About five weeks ago, Sparaco emerged from the shower with a towel around his waist to find a father on a bench braiding his two daughters' hair in the adult men's section. A couple of men stood around befuddled, not knowing whether to dress or undress in front of the girls, he said.
Sparaco asked the man to take the girls out into the hallway.
"You can just shove it," the father reportedly told Sparaco, insisting that the area was the family dressing space.
Sparaco isn't alone in his concern.
"Some people are upset about it," said a man who is a member of the Palo Alto Family Y. "Some of the kids are not that small. When I go to the bathroom, at times I feel uncomfortable about that. I don't walk around without any clothes on, but some people do."
Two women said the presence of boys in the women's locker room is problematic. Parents don't always control their kids, and they run into the adult areas rather than staying in the family-changing section, they said.
Jordan said there are intercoms in the locker rooms, and members are encouraged to use them if someone is not complying with policy. When someone violates the rules, staff is trained to ask the person to move to the family side of the locker room, added Lee Pfab, executive director for the Palo Alto Family Y.
Sparaco said the opposite-sex problem is compounded by girls having to pass the men's showers to get to the pool. There is only one doorway.
Pfab acknowledged that there is a chance a child may see an adult unclothed due to the single entrance.
Sparaco would like to see a starkly different policy: no opposite-sex children in the adult locker rooms. There are already two small, private dressing rooms outside of the locker room that parents and children can use, he said.
Other YMCAs have different policies. The Marin YMCA in San Rafael has four separate locker rooms: for women, girls, boys and men, said Ron Reher of member services. The sexes are strictly separated. Parents can go into the children's locker rooms, but they must be accompanied by a child.
The Sonoma County YMCA allows children of the opposite sex under 6 years old in the men's and women's locker rooms into a curtained area reserved for families, but there is a separate, private entrance. There is also a unisex dressing area with a hallway that leads to the pool so that children don't need to pass through the opposite-sex locker room.