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Bathrooms a reflection of school's climate

Monday, February 28, 2000

By Gretchen McKay, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

There's a saying among school administrators that, if you want to feel the pulse of a particular building, one of the first things you should do is stick your head into the restroom.

    Related article:

Health officials regularly inspect restrooms in county's public schools


Find clean floors and walls and adequate soap and paper towel supplies, and there's probably a high degree of school pride, as well as a general feeling among students that they're safe.

But if you discover squalor -- years-old graffiti scribbled on the walls, tobacco chew in the urinals or thick cigarette smoke -- chances are students feel threatened.

"When we think about school safety, we tend to think about metal detectors," said Kenneth Trump, president of National School Safety and Security Services in Cleveland and author of "Practical School Security."

But issues of cleanliness, graffiti and even soap and paper towels, he believes, tell you as much about the climate of a school as the strength of its academic program and number of extracurricular activities.

"We grossly underestimate the number of kids who are afraid to go to the restroom," Trump said.

In a 1993 poll by USA Weekend, 43 percent of 65,000 public school students surveyed said they avoided restrooms for fear of being bullied, robbed, extorted or attacked.

This year, a string of school restroom crimes and tragedies made news:

This month, an 18-year-old student at a private school in Westampton, N.J., took a teacher's aide hostage in a restroom. He eventually surrendered to police.

A sixth-grader hanged herself from a restroom stall door last month at Cedar Park Middle School in Texas.

In Midvale, Utah, last month, a juvenile corrections officer at Hillcrest High School was stabbed in the leg after he walked into a restroom and interrupted a drug deal.

On Feb. 15, an 11-year-old pupil at Ellington School in Chicago was shot when a child playing with a gun in a nearby restroom fired through the classroom wall.

Classes were canceled at three schools in the Pittsburgh area this month after threatening notes were found in restrooms.

Restrooms smell bad

Safety concerns aren't the only reason some students are reluctant to use the school restrooms. It's also because many of the restrooms are downright dirty.

"They smell. None of the doors on the stalls shut if they even had a door. There's cigarette butts everywhere, and people don't flush," freshman Alex Steinberg, 15, said of the restrooms at Mt. Lebanon Senior High, particularly those on the fifth floor.

His twin sister, Liz, said the girls' rooms were just as bad.

"There's ashes on the toilet seats and writing all over the walls. ... It's pretty gross."

The cleanliness issue, of course, is hardly unique to a particular school district or even this generation. Teens' smoking in restrooms has always been a problem, though it may be worse today, according to administrators, because so many teen-agers are hooked.

Paula Pellefone, an instructor at Deer Lake's East Union Intermediate Center, remembers that part of her daily duty when she first started 20 years ago was running "potty patrol."

"You'd go in the bathroom and head to the stalls, and smell the smoke and see two or three pairs of feet under the door."

So, if the problem is so pervasive and has long been, why not crack down on bad behavior in the bathroom? In a word, say school officials, the answer is privacy.

Surveillance cameras in toilet areas are considered intrusive, though some districts, such as Ringgold in Washington County, place them outside in the hallway to monitor youths going in and out of the bathroom.

But there's another reason, too, said Lou Baldassare, director of the Center for School Safety and Violence Prevention.

"It really comes down to consistent control. The only sure-fire way [to keep bathrooms safe and clean] is to monitor them on a regular basis."

Though most schools require certain faculty members to spot-check bathrooms during hall duty, it is impossible to monitor every child, said North Hills Junior High Principal Joseph Belotti. "It's a situation of being in the right location at the right time."

That is true even in districts where extra security guards have been hired to counter smoking or vandalism in the bathroom. Shaler Area and Chartiers Valley high schools are in that group.

Pride, involvement

As for teachers, they are often kept from hall duty between classes (when restrooms are used the most) because students stay after class to ask questions, pointed out Pine-Richland High School Principal Robert Johnson.

Even if they are in the halls, they might not go into the bathrooms as often as administrators would like.

"Teachers just don't like to go into bathrooms and get into that kind of confrontation," said James DeTrude, principal of Avonworth High School.

One solution might be to hire someone to sit in every bathroom throughout the day, but DeTrude doubts anyone would apply.

There's also the privacy issue. "You've got three or four teen-age boys using the bathroom and there is some adult standing there watching them. ... There's a certain comfort level there."

His district is renovating its restrooms now.

In schools across the country, the mayhem continues. Students stuff M-80s down the toilets to blow up pipes. They tear soap dispensers off the walls. Bullies hold younger students hostage until they hand over their lunch money.

In large part, said David McAnallen, associate director of the Parent & Child Guidance Center in Mt. Lebanon, the problems are symptomatic of how connected students feel to their school. The higher the degree of anonymity, the higher is the degree of vandalism or disregard for their surroundings.

Atmosphere, too, is important.

"Do administrators and teachers say 'Hello,' and have they installed a sense of pride and involvement?" asked McAnallen.

Equally significant is something McAnallen calls "tolerance." If someone scribbles on the wall, how long does it take the district to wipe it off? And what happens to the offending student should he get caught?

"If kids see graffiti left on the wall for a long time, that's permission," McAnallen said.

Bethel Park High School Principal Thomas Hisiro agreed that it's important for schools to keep on top of maintenance. Once a restroom becomes rundown, "you're going to get copycat stuff," he said.

No-door embarrassment

Schools are taking steps to make bathrooms cleaner and safer.

In addition to stiff fines and suspensions for smoking, some districts lock bathrooms during classes or require students to have hall passes any time they are outside the classroom. Northgate High School recently decided to lock the outside doors of bathrooms open during the day. Others, such as Mt. Lebanon, have removed stall doors.

When it renovated its bathrooms last year as part of a larger building program, North Hills Junior High removed the outside doors and reconfigured the entrance to allow for easier access. The result, said Rob Pillar, senior associate for architects Burt Hill Kosar Rittelmann Associates, is that sound comes through to the hall.

Leaving doors off also helps cut down on smoking, because smoke will drift out in the hall, alerting staff.

Mt. Lebanon went one step further when it renovated Mellon Middle School. Instead of placing the teachers' restroom area separate from the students' restrooms, architects positioned them next to one another and gave them both the same entrance. At any point, Pillar said, a teacher can walk in, and it becomes a supervised space.

Upper St. Clair High School also took several measures when it remodeled its bathrooms last year. Rather than traditional sheet metal, which is easily damaged, the stalls are constructed of durable solid plastic panels that are bolted together with tamper-proof fasteners. In addition, the stalls are bolted to the wall instead of the floor, allowing for more effective cleaning.

When it renovates its bathrooms next summer, Pine-Richland High School will include stall doors with continuous hinges and double bracing on both sides. "That way they won't be able to be kicked off," said project manager Dan Engen of Eckles Architecture in New Castle.

Other schools opt for restrooms equipped with electronic flush toilets, automatic faucets and hot-air hand dryers. Mirrors constructed of metal instead of glass and graffiti-proof epoxy paint on the walls also can reduce vandalism.

Other tactics to make restrooms safer have nothing to do with renovations.

The Los Angeles Unified School District last month created a 24-hour hot line to report dirty or poorly stocked bathrooms. It also assigned full-time restroom attendants at some schools.

The Northgate School District last year received national attention after it instituted "honors restrooms" in the high school. Students willing to sign an honor code are given a computerized card that allows access to two specially designated restrooms.

"As corny as it sounds, it's been working like a charm," said Principal John Wilkinson. In more than 10,000 restroom visits last year, there were only two incidents of smoking.

Alison Leuthold, a junior at Deer Lakes, hopes school administrators will be receptive to several ideas she and other high school student council members have come up with to combat smoking in the restroom. One proposal is for a special smoke alarm.

"Sometimes it's so bad, you have to search for another bathroom," she said.

Alex Steinberg, who says he will use the toilet at Mt. Lebanon only in an emergency, agreed. A letter he wrote to the editor of the school newspaper about the appalling conditions of the school bathrooms will be published next month, and he hopes that will open a discussion with principals.

"It's really embarrassing [to use a stall without a door]," he said. "I hope something will happen."

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