In a drawing, the 7-year-old girl set the scene.
Starbucks sat in the background. Uneaten food rested on an outdoor table. And smack in the middle of the Downtown Silver Spring fountain, where the water spouted the highest, stood a boy in shorts and a “Surfs Up” shirt. Next to him, two girls in bathing suits played. All three wore smiles.
Off to the side stood another figure, a frowning yellow-haired girl in purple shorts and a matching shirt.
The 7-year-old circled the girl to indicate it was her.
What happened to the rising second-grader on a recent evening at the popular Maryland splash fountain has elicited outrage from some parents and raised important questions about the practices of privately owned, publicly used aquatic spaces where children spend their summers splashing and squealing.
What led to the incident is complicated, but this much remains undisputed: The girl was singled out because of what she was wearing.
Also undisputed: It never should have happened.
The child’s mother, Roz Dzelzitis, asked me not to identify her daughter by name. But she shared her drawing with me and detailed what occurred last Thursday evening when her family visited the fountain, which is just a few blocks from their home.
“She had been in there a little while,” Dzelzitis said of her daughter. “Suddenly the guard came over and motioned to her and said, ‘Out!’ ”
Dzelzitis said when she asked him why, he pulled out a black binder that contained drawings of swimwear and told her that her daughter wasn’t dressed appropriately. She said she tried to explain that the shirt was a rash guard made for the water and the shorts were also for swimming.
At one point, she said, her daughter walked over to them and pointed at a boy in the fountain.
“She said, ‘But look, that boy over there is wearing swim shorts and I’m wearing swim shorts,’ ” Dzelzitis said. “He said, ‘But that’s a boy and you’re a girl.’ ”
Dzelzitis said at that point she asked to make a formal complaint and was directed to an office, where she was handed a card for the property manager. That night, as she prepared to write a letter, she said her daughter told her she also wanted to write one.
The girl started working on her drawing. At the top, she wrote a message that contained some misspellings but made a clear point: “To Property Manager of DTS Founten. it’s not fair that boys get to wear swim shorts in the founten and girls need to wear swim underwear or a one pies swim souts.”
She is right, of course. We should be way past expecting boys and girls to dress a certain way and limiting our views of swimwear to what dangles on department store hangers. Just a few months ago, Sports Illustrated featured model Halima Aden wearing a burkini in its pages.
But here’s where the situation gets messy (because aren’t these issues always?). What happened at the fountain that day is not as clear-cut as an outdated policy that needs to be changed.
When I asked the people in charge of Downtown Silver Spring about the girl’s experience, I received this written statement: “There was an unfortunate misunderstanding by a security guard at the Downtown Silver Spring fountain who did not initially recognize that the child’s attire was indeed swimwear. Once a supervisor was called and found that the clothing was appropriate swim attire, the supervisor apologized and told the parents the girl was allowed back in the fountain. We’ve taken this opportunity to retrain our Security team. There is no gender specific swim wear requirement.”
“The fountain is required to operate under Montgomery County’s rules for swimming pools,” the statement continued. “As such, children and adults must be in swim attire.”
Dzelzitis said that the statement shocked her and that contrary to it, her family did not get an apology that day and her daughter was not allowed back in the water.
She also said even if no gender-specific policy exists, the actions taken at the fountain that day were still discriminatory against her daughter.
“Just the fact that someone specifically told her that ‘Yes, that boy can do this but you’re a girl, you can’t,’ ” Dzelzitis said. “It’s unbelievable that would occur in 2019 in Silver Spring, Maryland. Those memories of being told what you can and can’t do because of your gender never leave you.”
After posting about the incident on Facebook, Dzelzitis learned that her experience was not isolated.
Parents contacted her to say their children had also been turned away. She shared, with permission, some of their emails and texts with me. Some described girls in regular clothes being told they couldn’t play there, even as boys in non-swim shorts splashed away. One woman said that her daughter was covered from head to toe for religious reasons and that even though the girl wore acceptable swimwear, the same she uses at aquatic centers, she wasn’t allowed to play at the fountain.
Another woman, Jovana Garcia, said her daughter was turned away twice last year. The first time, they arrived 15 minutes before the fountain closed. The second time, she said, her then-4-year-old daughter was with a girl who wore swim shorts instead of a swimsuit.
“Both girls walked away sad,” Garcia said. After that, she said, “we just didn’t go back.”
Requiring swimwear at all at these publicly used spray parks seems exclusionary if for no other reason than it leaves out children who can’t afford those clothes. But even if we push that issue aside, and accept that swimwear is required, we’re left with a situation that without clear guidelines and careful enforcement is ripe for bias.
Dzelzitis said she supports a suggestion made by Montgomery County Council member Hans Riemer (D-At Large), who reached out to the family to offer support and an apology. She said he proposed the fountain post a sign that says any swimwear for all identities is acceptable. That way, Dzelzitis said, parents know the rules and their rights.
It seems a smart and simple step that all splash fountains should take. After all, children will be forming many memories there over the next few months, and we know, from the detailed drawing of a 7-year-old, that they remember all too well those moments when they’re wronged.