School Climate & Safety

Bathroom Blues

School restrooms are often dirty, dank, and depressing. But a lone crusader is proving that they don’t have to be.
By Catherine Gewertz — February 12, 2003 12 min read
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Tom Keating’s at it again. He’s talkin’ trash. And toilets. And sinks and urinals.

He’s leading a brisk tour of an American high school’s typically dirty bathrooms, and no disgusting detail escapes his attention.

“Look at this,” he says, pointing at a men’s room stall with no door. “A place for an intimate moment, and no privacy.” Ditto on the row of stained urinals with no dividers between them.

More restrooms bring more nastiness: Graffiti. Spit wads stuck to a ceiling. Paper towels crammed in urinal drains and crumpled on floors. A filthy ceiling fan. No hot water in one sink. Soapless dispensers. Empty toilet paper rolls. Unflushed toilets. Naked, dim bulbs. Mysterious splatters across pink tile. (Don’t ask. You don’t want to know.)

A doctorate in education policy and decades of teaching, lobbying for school districts, and consulting on issues such as dropout prevention and desegregation have delivered this intensely energetic 61-year-old to a new calling: America’s patron saint of privies. Since 1996, when he started Project CLEAN (Citizens, Learners, and Educators Against Neglect), he’s visited or worked in 50 schools in 14 states. People call him Bathroom Man. Toilet Man. Dr. Toilet.

But none of that bothers Keating. To him, dirty school restrooms signify much of what’s wrong with schools, and catalyzing their cleanup not only paves the road to better achievement (“Kids can’t learn if they’re holding it in all day”), but forges the foundation of citizenship.

“Dirty school bathrooms are a national disgrace,” Keating proclaims in his megaphonic voice. “This is about cleanliness, safety, and hygiene. But it’s also about schools respecting students and students respecting themselves. It’s about learning to be a self- initiating, self-governing citizen. This is my way of building democracy.”

(He isn’t kidding about the democracy part, but he says it with a smile. The same smile he flashes when he hands you his business card and notes its color: “urine yellow.”)

This New Mexico town might seem an unlikely choice for a restroom crusade. A cluster of brownish stucco buildings under an enormous blue sky, 18 miles of tumbleweed and telephone wire from the Texas line, it’s best known for its peanut production. But Keating’s here because its schools have two things: the usual array of problems, and a very unusual commitment to tackle them.

Jim Holloway, the superintendent of Portales’ eight public schools and 2,700 students, had overseen several districts in his native Georgia before coming west, and he knew Keating from the consultant’s work in Atlanta-area districts. Holloway balked at devoting time and scarce resources to bathrooms, but also saw the value. Keating came out for a visit.

He was everywhere. At the town’s one movie theater, interviewing the girl behind the counter (“So, you go to Portales High? How are the restrooms?”) On the baseball field, during practice, inspecting the nearby bathrooms. (“Those bathrooms are a mess. Who’s gonna clean ‘em?” he asked assistant principal and baseball coach Melvin Nusser. “I guess you are,” Nusser kidded, thinking he had some weirdo on his hands. Keating returned minutes later in rubber gloves and cleaned the restrooms.)

Toilet Man won a one-year, $12,000 contract to help the local schools devise cleanup plans, starting with Portales High School, where a student committee now meets on school time to inspect bathrooms and write work orders to ensure proper maintenance. Nusser co-sponsors the committee; Kimberly Jones, 18, the student who works at the movie theater, serves on it.

“With all the pressure to get high test scores, to say we’re working on bathrooms, you get a chuckle. People say, ‘You ought to concentrate on something more important,’” says Holloway. “But my contention is that if kids take ownership on the bathroom side, maybe it will carry forward out into the school. It’s about feeling good about the school. I contend that if you improve those areas, it might help the dropout rate.”

Cleanliness of school bathrooms has not been high on the national priority list. The obsession with improved student performance drives most of the political dialogue about education. But the problems at Portales’ schools mirror those in the country’s 1 million-odd public school restrooms.

In some places, they’re far worse: Students tell of ripped-out fixtures, urine and feces on the floor, drug use, beatings, and furtive sex in the lavatories. It’s no wonder that 43 percent of middle and high school students reported in a 1993 survey in USA Weekend that they avoided school bathrooms.

Even restrooms with run-of-the-mill supply and cleanliness issues can prove unpleasant enough that kids steer clear. It isn’t hard to find students at Portales High who’ll tell you they hold it all day, or leave campus whenever they can to use bathrooms at home or at the nearby Wal-Mart.

While such maneuvers are grist for jokes and camaraderie, they can have little-recognized consequences.

Dr. Michael E. Mitchell, professor-in-chief of pediatric urology at Children’s Hospital in Seattle, says he frequently sees children, especially girls, with bladder and kidney infections because they refuse to urinate in dirty school restrooms. Some develop a persistent inability to empty their bladders properly, says Mitchell, who also chairs the American Academy of Pediatrics’ urology section.

‘My contention is that if kids take ownership on the bathroom side, maybe it will carry forward out into the school.’

Industry experts say a new era in school restrooms is dawning, in which depressing, defensive design is giving way to more inviting environments. The emphasis is on wide, well-lighted spaces in pleasing colors, with sensor- triggered toilets, sinks, and lights to cut back on odor and conserve resources. Newer, heavy-duty plastics can produce partitions and doors that are attractive and damage-resistant. Even districts with virtually no money to spend can make a huge difference just with brighter lighting.

Few states or districts have regulations governing the upkeep of school restrooms. Legislation that would have required bathrooms to be fully stocked died last year in at least two states. Schools and districts have tried to address the subject in varying ways, with varying success.

One high school principal in Sacramento, Calif., reworked her budget to cut back on staff travel and resulting substitutes’ pay so she could hire another janitor. Restrooms at California’s Berkeley High School are better stocked and maintained since “the bathroom moms” put pressure on in 1998, but vandalism, smoking, and other misbehavior still flourish, says Shirley Issel, who rode the issue to a school board seat that year.

The Los Angeles school district opened a toll-free bathroom hotline three years ago, and conveys dozens of complaints each year to custodial or maintenance crews. The sprawling district is also installing toilets and sinks triggered by infrared sensors in 100 restrooms a year.

At the elite Boston Latin School, where students used to bring their own toilet paper because they rarely found it in the stalls, restrooms are better supplied since they complained to the district administration in 1999, says student council President Calisse Pollina. A few seniors wash off graffiti to earn community-service hours. But the bathrooms are “still not great,” Pollina says.

Students at Lowell High School in San Francisco have had more success in their 2-year-old campaign for lovelier loos. Backed by donations from the parent-teacher and alumni associations, students have led drives to clean, paint, and install automatic- flush toilets in a half-dozen restrooms. Student-artists have created murals for the walls, and they have stayed graffiti-free, says sophomore Jonas Chin, who leads the effort.

Tom Keating recently helped students at Cross Keys High School in Decatur, Ga., where he lives, begin keeping a log of bathroom problems that they shared with the principal. Student clubs took on individual restrooms, refurbishing and monitoring them.

Keating teamed up with Kimberly- Clark Corp., the towel and toilet paper manufacturer, which sponsored a rally and bathroom-cleanup day at Decatur’s Avondale High School. The school’s Air Force Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps led the charge to improve four restrooms; cadets painted walls in warm colors, made sure stalls had doors, and spruced them up with flowers, ribbons, and artwork. But interpersonal rivalries and a change in school leadership have since reportedly slowed progress there.

The persistence of nasty bathrooms derives from a combination of factors, say people who face the problem daily. Students feel little ownership of these common spaces, and act accordingly. And with school buildings averaging 42 years old, enamel and grout are worn, scum has settled deep into remote spots, and fixtures are prone to break.

“You could clean them all day and you feel like you did nothing,” says Roger Chavez, one of five Portales High janitors. When he attended the school himself three decades ago, the bathrooms were just as dirty, he says. The problem? “Kids need to learn something about respect,” he says.

Prison-like design and poor upkeep also encourage destructive behavior. Administrators’ training seldom addresses bathroom management, and teachers’ lessons virtually never include restroom respect. No one really wants to deal with the unpleasantness, and administrators feel far too busy with pressing issues to spend time on restrooms.

'What I should be spending time on is monitoring teachers' teaching, not checking on bathrooms. A principal can't do everything.'

“It’s the kids that are messing them up,” says Shawn Ashley, the co-principal of the 4,500-student Polytechnic High School in Long Beach, Calif., where students demonstrated last June for cleaner restrooms. “If they want better restrooms, they should take responsibility for helping keep them clean. What I should be spending time on is monitoring teachers’ teaching, not checking on bathrooms. A principal can’t do everything.”

Few would disagree that students are a big part of the problem. But the role of the principal in addressing it can’t be understated. Paul G. Young, the president of the National Association of Elementary School Principals, says there is “no excuse” for dirty restrooms.

“It’s one of the responsibilities of a principal,” he says. “We are instructional leaders, but we also have to keep a balance with management.” The principal must “set the tone for learning” by making sure all aspects of the school, physical and instructional, combine to create a good environment, Young says.

Portales’ Melvin Nusser couldn’t agree more. Working with Bathroom Man has led the assistant principal to the light. “I felt too busy to think about bathrooms. I would just go in, do what I had to do, and get out,” Nusser says. “But really, how can good learning occur if we have facilities that are horrendous? We have to make the whole place inviting.

“Philosophically, I think I can raise test scores by improving the bathrooms.”

Outsiders could surmise that if Portales High has time to spend on tidying up restrooms, it must be a place with few problems. But Principal Murphy Quick recalls that when he took over six years ago, the school of 700 was a “war zone” plagued by gang fighting. He’s gotten that under control now, but he’s still under pressure to raise test scores and lose fewer kids to the alternative high school.

Swamped as he is, though, improving the restrooms is still important, he says, and it doesn’t siphon off too much of his time, since much of it can be delegated to Nusser and the committee. The issue is key to fostering a good learning environment, which is needed in particular by the lowest achievers, says Quick, a soft-spoken, wiry man in jeans and sneakers.

That’s why the Portales folks have let Toilet Man loose in their district. And he’s made quite an impression.

Fastidious in his tucked-in turtleneck and blazer, Keating walks quickly from building to building, stooping to grab Twinkie wrappers or paper cups from the ground as he zips by. He celebrates the kids’ football successes, using the word “we.” He greets students by name, inquires after a janitor’s ill child. The teenagers on his committee came dragging their heels, but Keating’s passion to make their world better has turned them into full partners.

“When I first heard him talking about bathrooms, I thought, ‘This guy is really odd,’” says Calvin Griffin, 18, a burly football player. “But when I saw him actually doing it, and caring about it, I thought, ‘OK, I can do that, too.’ ”

Kimberly Jones says she gets a “warm and tingly feeling” from having adults “give us this power and really listen to what we are saying.”

And they are saying things need to be better. Keating has trained the committee members in his lavatory-inspection techniques: Start in the hall. How does the entrance look? Dirty? Well-lit and inviting? Do the signs promote childish irresponsibility (“boys” and “girls”) or respect (“men” and “women”)?

Inside, use all your senses (“The one I don’t do is taste,” Keating quips). Feel the walls. Are they scummy? Scan the place visually. Is it dim? Any graffiti? Anything broken or leaking? How’s the paper stock? Listen and smell. Is the ventilation system working?

Those techniques have not only cataloged problems, but produced improvements. Portales High now has many stall doors where there were none, and sanitary- product receptacles are on their way. Bare, low-wattage bulbs in some bathrooms have been replaced with bright fluorescent light, making the dim and dingy into something open and welcoming.

Keating has bigger plans. He wants to work bathroom respect into the curriculum and put up related displays in the hallways and media center. He’s spreading the gospel elsewhere, too. He’s advising the DeKalb County school district, which includes his home base in Georgia, on a major renovation involving 800 bathrooms, and he’s pushing the Georgia legislature to adopt laws governing school bathrooms.

He’s partnering with Kimberly-Clark on spruce-up projects in five as-yet-unnamed cities, and creating a national clearinghouse on school restrooms through Project CLEAN. He’s guiding Bobrick Washroom Equipment Inc. on a booklet about the ideal school restroom. That company also is reprinting a pamphlet Keating wrote on safe, clean restrooms last year for Phi Delta Kappa International, the professional organization for educators.

To Keating, if his restroom evangelizing cleans up even one little corner of the world, it’s a victory that exceeds the bounds of any pink-tiled room. “You start with soap,” he says. “You start there and work your way to respect.”


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