Restroom Relief

Concerns about safety prompt unusual measures

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At Donna High School in south Texas, school officials have made students stop carrying lavatory passes and start wearing them. For the past year, teenagers in the 2,300-student school who leave class to answer the call of nature have had to wear a bright orange "safety" vest with the appropriate teacher's name stenciled in block letters on the back.

The policy in Donna, a town near the Mexican border about 150 miles south of Corpus Christi, sounds extreme. But increasingly, school officials nationwide are having to resort to unusual measures to confront an unfortunate fact of school life: Restrooms aren't always used for their intended purpose. Away from the eyes of adults, they can become prime locations for smoking, violence, and serious vandalism.

Without money to hire bathroom monitors during classes, some principals ask their teachers to patrol bathrooms; others simply keep them locked for most of the day.

"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," says Donna High associate principal Jerry Lott. "The school is so big and so hard to control, and this way we know who belongs to whom."

Still, the vests aren't exactly a panacea. One problem is that the students think they are a joke. "Kids will stuff them in pants, under jackets, or in books, anything but wear them," says Craig Self, a history teacher. "My only request is that they come back dry."

At Western High School in Louisville, Kentucky, 50 students walked out of class one day last October to protest a policy that keeps only one set of restrooms open throughout the entire day. The others are only unlocked during the five-minute breaks between classes. The students chanted, "Let us pee," and carried signs that read "1, 2, 3, 4 Open the RR Doors."

Despite the walkout, the bathrooms have remained locked. Principal Geneva Stark Price says most students and parents now understand that without monitors, she has no choice but to keep the restrooms locked during classes.

Students face similar restrictions at Johnston High School in Providence, Rhode Island, where only one or two of the 14 bathrooms are kept open throughout the day. The policy enables administrators to spot-check the open lavatories for illicit activity, says assistant principal Maran Dola. But even those restrictions don't deter smokers from sneaking puffs between classes. "I still smell smoke sometimes when I walk into the bathrooms," Dola says. "But you can't watch everyone every second of the day."

For some school officials, cigarette smoke is the least of their worries. Rather, student safety is their top concern. In Los Angeles, elementary and junior high school students are required to walk to bathrooms in pairs. The school board enacted the policy in 1995 after a kindergartner was raped in an elementary school bathroom by a stranger who walked in off the street. Initially, the policy applied to high schools, too, but complaints from several administrators led the board to ease up. Now, pairing is encouraged, but not required, at the high school level.

Anne Falotico, principal at Los Angeles High School, says that although pairing may address safety concerns, it does not stop students from scribbling and spray-painting on the walls. "Bathrooms are a tremendous problem everywhere, not just in the inner city," she says. "I've seen it in the suburbs, too."

The most effective restroom policies, many agree, take little teacher time and grant students neither too much nor too little freedom.

When the traditional system of teacher-written passes failed to keep students from tearing down soap dispensers and writing on the stalls at a middle school in North Andover, Massachusetts, administrators opted for something radical: passports. Students roaming the hallways at the 950-student school these days are treated as if they were travelers in a foreign land. When a teacher asks, students must show their passports, semi-permanent passes on which teachers initial travel plans filled out by students. Every classroom has a "travelogue" that students must sign when they leave and return.

Since the system was put in place, says assistant principal Mary Ashburn, "the situation has improved 500 percent."

Vol. 09, Issue 01, Page 22-23

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