A Fact of School Life: Updated Restroom Policies

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At Donna High School in south Texas, school officials have made students stop carrying lavatory passes and start wearing them.

Since last fall, the 2,300-student school has required teenagers who need to leave class to answer the call of nature to do so draped in a bright hunter-orange "safety" vest with the appropriate teacher's name stenciled in block letters on the back.

In the eyes of the students, the vests are a joke.

"Kids will stuff them in pants, under jackets or in books, anything but wear them," said Craig N. Self, a history teacher. "My only request is that they come back dry."

The policy in Donna, a town near the Mexican border about 150 miles south of Corpus Christi, sounds extreme. But administrators there aren't the only ones who have resorted to unusual measures to deal with a basic fact of school life: Students don't just use the bathrooms for their intended purposes.

The problems go beyond smoking. Away from the eyes of adults, restrooms can become prime locations for violence and serious vandalism. As a result, many administrators have concluded that written passes alone are not enough.

One oft-cited problem for administrators is that budget constraints prevent them from hiring enough aides to monitor restrooms and halls during classes.

As a result, when faced with trashed stalls or smoke-filled facilities, some principals say they're forced to lock the doors, or require teachers to double as bathroom monitors during the rushed minutes between class periods.

Dealing with such issues can be a huge distraction for students, teachers, and administrators. To some, it may seem absurd that an act as simple as permitting a student to go to the bathroom can become such a headache. But administrators aren't creating restroom policies arbitrarily. For many, it's a process of trial and error.

"We tried other policies and they weren't working well, and then we saw the vest pass at a neighboring school and decided to try it," said Associate Principal Jerry Lott of Donna High School. "The school is so big and so hard to control, and this way we know who belongs to whom."

Locking Smoky Stalls

At Western High School in Louisville, Ky., 50 students walked out of class one Friday morning last October to protest a policy that keeps only one set of restrooms open throughout the entire day.

The school's other restrooms are unlocked by faculty members during the five-minute breaks between classes.

Despite the walkout, during which students chanted, "Let us pee," and held up signs that read "1, 2, 3, 4 Open the RR Doors," the bathrooms have remained locked, said Principal Geneva Stark Price.

Ms. Price said most students and parents now understand that without monitors, she has no choice but to keep the restrooms locked during classes to ensure that they are in decent condition for those students who do not smoke and don't damage the facilities.

Students face similar restrictions at Johnston High School in Providence, R.I., where only one or two of the 14 bathrooms are kept open throughout the day. The policy enables administrators to spot-check the lavatories for illicit activity, said Maran C. Dola, an assistant principal.

But even those restrictions don't deter some smokers from sneaking puffs between classes.

"I still smell smoke sometimes when I walk into the bathrooms," Mr. Dola said. "But you can't watch everyone every second of the day."

Safety Concerns

In some districts, school officials have greater cause to create strict restroom policies than the occasional cloud of cigarette smoke or scribble on the wall. They must ensure that the basic safety of each student is protected.

Los Angeles, the nation's second-largest district, requires all elementary and junior high school students to walk to the bathroom in pairs.

The school board enacted the policy after a kindergartner was raped in an elementary school bathroom in January 1995 by a stranger who walked in off the street.

The policy originally made the buddy system mandatory for high school students as well. But complaints from several high school administrators led the board to ease up. Now, pairing is encouraged, but not required at the district's high schools.

At Los Angeles High School, Principal Anne Falotico said pairing students may relieve some safety concerns, but the policy doesn't stop students from scribbling and spray-painting on the walls. Despite constant efforts to repaint, graffiti is a problem that never goes away.

Still, Ms. Falotico said, her challenge to maintain safe, clean bathrooms is neither new nor unique.

"Bathrooms are a tremendous problem everywhere, not just in the inner city," she said. "I've seen it in the suburbs, too."

Passport Approach

The importance of keeping restrooms both safe and clean can't be underestimated, said Ken Moore, a 5th grade teacher at Arlington Heights Elementary School in Los Angeles. He believes the state of a school's restrooms says a lot about its larger disciplinary situation.

In his 21 years as a teacher and substitute, Mr. Moore said, he has found that "in schools where restrooms were abused, a lack of rule-following and cooperation were noted in almost every campus area."

Some administrators say the most effective policy is one that grants students neither too much nor too little freedom, and takes little away from a teacher's valuable classroom time.

At a middle school in North Andover, Mass., when the traditional system of teacher-written passes failed to keep some students from tearing down soap dispensers and writing on the stalls, administrators opted for a new approach.

Now, students roaming the hallways at the 950-student North Andover Middle School are treated as if they are travelers in a foreign land.

When a teacher asks, students must show their "passports," semi-permanent passes on which teachers initial the travel plans filled out by students.

Additionally, every classroom comes equipped with a "travelogue" that students must sign before they leave class and when they come back.

Now, it is easier for teachers to narrow down the list of possible troublemakers if a problem arises, said Mary Ashburn, an assistant principal.

The system has worked, she said. "This way we can also tell if a student is asking to leave class every period just to take walks. The situation has improved 500 percent.''

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