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Posted at 6:30 AM ET, 02/ 5/2010

Another tale of school bathrooms

By Valerie Strauss

Not too long ago I wrote about how some bathrooms at Montgomery Blair High School--one of the premier institutions in Montgomery County Public Schools, itself a leading school district--had to be closed during lunch because there wasn’t enough staff to keep them from being vandalized.

Now we find that the bathrooms at the county’s Whitman High School--as good as a high schools gets--are also, in the words of a young journalist at the school’s student newspaper, black&white, “downright disgraceful.”

According to a recent story by writer Rachel Nussbaum, the problems are that the faucets barely work, the mirrors are metal, and it is hard to find a paper towel.

Here’s how it starts:

“Imagine the worst place you’ve ever been. Worse than the Bethesda tunnel. Worse than the Express line at Safeway when someone has 20 items. More along the lines of the Chokey in 'Matilda,' the movie. Damp, dark and full of pointy objects. In other words, Whitman’s bathrooms.

“Alright, so maybe that’s a bit of a hyperbole, but it’s pretty close to the truth. Whitman’s bathrooms have become downright disgraceful. In fact, the entire bathroom situation screams of stupidity.”

Reality check: These aren’t the worst problems I’ve heard about school bathrooms--after all, some schools have bathrooms in which the toilets don’t work and kids have to wait until they leave school to relieve themselves. Now THAT’s a problem.

Years ago I wrote a story for The Post (with my colleague Debbi Wilgoren) about a boy whose wheelchair couldn’t get over a bump in the doorway of the bathroom in a D.C. public school and he had to crawl to the toilet because he couldn’t walk. There was no bar in the stall to help him pull himself up--as required by law--so he took a lot of time. Sometimes he’d be late to class and get in trouble.

Now THAT’s a bathroom nightmare. (A federal judge finally ordered the school system to fix the problem.)

Still, the story in the Whitman paper makes me wonder what’s going on in such a fine school system.

Is anybody in a public school happy with the state of their bathrooms? And if the bathrooms are a mess, whose fault is it? Are the adults not maintaining them, or are the kids wrecking them, or both?

What’s going on with the bathrooms?


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By Valerie Strauss  | February 5, 2010; 6:30 AM ET
Categories:  Health, Montgomery County Public Schools, Student Life  | Tags:  Montgomery County Public Schools, school bathrooms  
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When my daughter attended Barren County High School, in Glasgow, Kentucky, the restrooms were always filled with cigarette smoke, so much so, it drifted into the halls. Also, hanging on the wall in the lunch room, was a toilet seat that students had to sign and take with them if they wanted to go to the restroom during lunch. I always wondered if the Health Department approved of this. By the way, my daughter always took her lunch...and plenty of hand sanitizer.

Posted by: SouthernKentuckyMom | February 5, 2010 9:01 AM | Report abuse

I went to a south central Kentucky high school several years ago where the afternoon bathroom breaks were a fecal/bacterial nightmare. Kids would skip class and go into the bathroom, throwing used toilet paper and used tampons and pads all over the floor on purpose. it was hazardous to go in there. Not only that, but we had toilet seats that were hung up in the school's cafeteria to be used as bathroom passes. In my university studies on the spread of bacteria, I have found that Ecoli and Staph bacteria is easily spread in bathrooms and places where moisture is present. This means, when a toilet flushes, it spreads those germs around in a 7 foot area. Having to take a toilet seat with you to the restroom and being forced to sign it is absolutely absurd! The fact that the toilet seats hung 5 feet from the food line should have shut down this school cafeteria. But what is interesting is that not soon after the placement of these toilet seats a break-out of STAPH infection and MRSA bacteria hit our school, causing over 15% of the school population to be absent. Why must a School adapt such measures or allow students to get away with such barbaric behavior?

Posted by: LadyJane341 | February 6, 2010 2:24 AM | Report abuse

Do teachers still try to motivate students by telling them if they don't get an education they'll end up working at some dead-end job like janitor or waitress? (My high school guidance counselor advised one of my classmates not to take any secretarial courses, "since you're smart enough to do college work and you'll never have to work at a menial job like that.")

Just a thought, but if students are told the janitor who cleans the school does so because he was too stupid or lazy to get an education and a good job, why would they bother to make his job easier by trying to keep the bathrooms nice?

Posted by: sideswiththekids | February 6, 2010 10:12 AM | Report abuse

LadyJane 341--"Why must a School adapt such measures or allow students to get away with such barbaric behavior?"

It's partly the end result of the general public (mostly parents) refusing to allow schools to enforce discipline, and partly due to administrators who are too afraid of lawsuits to enforce the rules that are in place.

Most of all, it's because children are raised without any sense of responsibility to the larger community.

Posted by: aed3 | February 6, 2010 10:57 PM | Report abuse

To aed3: "children are raised without any sense of responsibility to the larger community."

Exactly-and whose fault is this? The schools and some parents work hard to make sure students feel no sense of responsibility toward anything the facutly doesn't assign. When a coach tells a student he should have made his dental appointment earlier in the day so it wouldn't interfere with his football practice, when a principal is about to assign detention to a youngster who saw his dog get hit by a car and carried it to the vet instead of getting on the bus, when teachers tell a farm boy he shouldn't have stayed up all night helping the vet care for a farrowing pig, or when the administration reacts to a theft by warning students and teachers not to bring any money to school instead of by calling the police, when parents exhaust themselves rather than expect a teenager to help with the housework, when a mother tells a paper that cancelling football would mean her senior would be unsupervised for two hours a day and would get into trouble, what message does this send the students except that they have no obligation to think of any person besides themselves?

(These are all actual occurrences.)

Posted by: sideswiththekids | February 7, 2010 9:04 AM | Report abuse

sideswiththekids--WOW!! you must be in a rural area. That's quite a list of occurrences.

What I had in mind was more the garden variety malcontents who think it's funny to mess things up and don't care about the person who has to clean it.

Right now, at my school we're having problems with 5th graders from very well-off families who like to stuff toilet paper rolls into the toilet and then flush. It's so funny to see the grownups run around to clean it up. The kids always blame it on each other and the parents always take their child's side. So, the 5th grade teachers have to send the kids into the restrooms one at a time, and someone has to check the room in between uses to make sure there hasn't been any vandalism so that the wrong person doesn't get blamed. Of course, everyone knows who does it, but in our legalistic society, there's never enough absolute "proof."

When I was a kid, that kind of vandalism was rare, and the perp was quickly caught. The penalty was to stay after school and help the custodian, who was actually a wonderful guy who nobody wanted to insult.

Posted by: aed3 | February 7, 2010 3:35 PM | Report abuse

Well, once again we take a look at DC Public Schools in conjunction with this story... I'm a teacher at a DC Public High School, and I must say that our restrooms are atrocious. (At least the boys bathrooms), as are many of our corridors and other areas... and while it's easy to place blame on the students, or the custodians, I think that the blame lies with all of us.


Because there are still too many...

...parents don't instill the value of school facilities to their kids, to the point that the ones who vandalize will keep vandalizing, and those who actually MIGHT care, feel that they can't do anything about it.

...custodians, who only clean once a week, report the problems once a month, and repaint only once a year. administrators who don't realize the impact that physical environments have on the students, and their achievement. Making the students feel that they TRULY do not care about their well-being.

...teachers who are apathetic to the problem, and pass by it each day saying to themselves "Well, that's not my job".

But it is OUR JOB!!! Every single person that interacts with a child has a responsibility to point them in the right direction, give them what they feel that they deserve, and hold that responsibility dear, because as we say "it's not my job", the child only hears "I don't care".

Posted by: Mspikes82 | February 8, 2010 10:41 AM | Report abuse

To aed#: That's my point. These "5th graders from very well-off families" don't know the janitor. He's just some figure that is paid to clean up their messes. Years ago, a college president took his sabbatical to work at a series of blue-collar jobs and wrote about the abuse and scorn he encountered--people who refused to speak to the garbage collector, people who spoke rudely to the fast-food clerk, people he knew who saw him as just another faceless servant and failed to recognize him (somewhat like the Victorian women who addressed all maids by the same name). And the youngsters don't think about the cost to their parents of the vandalism because their parents, in an effort to make life easy for them (or to keep them from figuring out that the family can't really afford their lifestyle) has never taught them where the financing for the school comes from. And they aren't afraid of the consequences, because they don't know that vandalism is against the law or think no minors can be charged with a crime. School exists for them entirely in a vacuum--they go in the morning and go home in the afternoon and while there they have no connection with the rest of the world. (How many students are startled to encounter their teacher in a grocery?)

Posted by: sideswiththekids | February 8, 2010 8:16 PM | Report abuse

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