The floors of your hallways are spotless; your library shelves are bursting with a diverse collection of books and periodicals, and your classrooms hum with the latest technology. But your efforts to build a positive school image may fail if the washrooms aren't clean.
"It's an area that no one wants to talk about," says Phil Lott, director of facilities for the Provo, Utah, School District, "but washrooms are how most people judge the cleanliness of a school building."
For washrooms as well as locker rooms, the convergence of moisture, germs and enterprising students can be a potent mixture that makes cleaning and maintenance a formidable task. Schools that outfit their washrooms and locker rooms with equipment that lessens the amount of maintenance needed and deters students from wreaking havoc are more likely to keep their washrooms presentable and in working order.
"You want something that has durability and longevity," says James Hiller, supervisor of operations for the East China, Mich., School District.
Looking for trouble The school washroom has long tempted students seeking some diversion. With a simple, yet urgent, request to the teacher, a student is freed from the constraints of adult supervision in the classroom and sent down the hallway to the lavatory.
There, a resourceful child can find many ways to stir up some mischief: clogging sinks and toilets with tissues and paper towels; testing faucets to see if the sink will overflow; carving initials, phone numbers or more artistic renderings into the stall partitions; reporting the latest grievances with a teacher in permanent marker graffiti; and as memorialized in song, the ever-popular "smokin' in the boys' room."
To keep their washrooms from becoming unsanitary playgrounds for disobedient children, school officials have to take steps to prevent and discourage student pranks and vandalism.
"You hate to say that, but kids are kids, and you go from there," says Hiller.
In East China, Hiller prefers using phenolic toilet-stall partitions instead of metal, which can be bent or twisted more easily. Phenolic partitions are also less susceptible to damage from salt and urine, as well as student graffiti.
To discourage abuse as well as damage from moisture, East China's washrooms do not have ceiling tiles. Instead, the district opts for a hard plaster ceiling with a sand finish. This has discouraged any student from climbing upon a fixture to punch through tiles.
Controlling germs Bacteria can thrive in moisture. One trouble spot in washrooms is tile grout, so Provo instead coats the floors with epoxy paint. This reduces the level of bacteria, and cuts down on odors.
Water also causes problems when it combines with toilet paper to form massive white wads that students can heave at each other or use to clog drains. In the Maplewood-Richmond Heights, Mo., School District, washrooms are now outfitted with jumbo toilet paper dispensers that are totally enclosed.
"The rolls last longer, and the kids can't get access to them as easily," says Beth Rowland, the district's director of buildings and grounds."
In many cases, technology can step in where children aren't ready to perform a task. That's why the washrooms that early-childhood students use in Maplewood-Richmond Heights have toilets that use an electronic eye to automatically flush.
"They have worked well for us in schools with small children who don't always flush," says Rowland.
Open-door policy To bolster security and better monitor what is happening in washrooms, many schools have opted to remove doors from entrances as well as from stalls. Districts have to balance safety concerns with students' needs for privacy.
"Leaving the doors off is a touchy area," says Hiller. "That doesn't matter as much as a commitment by the staff in the schoolto police the kids. A kid who knows Mr. Jones will walk around the corner to see what's going on is less likely to be doing something he shouldn't."
In Provo, The district has removed entrance doors, and that has reduced vandalism, adds Lott. But when the schools took away the stall doors, many parents complained, and the doors were put back.
"That is still quite a private area," says Lott.
Some of the more adventurous school experiments don't take place in science labs. Take some sweaty gym clothes and throw them in a dark, damp locker, and who knows what odoriferous life forms will result.
Many schools use expanded metal lockers to diminish the aroma often found in locker rooms. A sheet of metal is slit and pulled into rows of diamond-shaped openings to form expanded metal. The openings provide needed air flow to athletic locker rooms.
"We use expanded metal lockers and have a vent pipe that draws the odors out," says Phil Lott, director of facilities for the Provo, Utah, School District. "In our gyms, that has really decreased the musty locker smell."
James Hiller, supervisor of operations for the East China, Mich., School District, says he looks for lockers that are quiet yet durable.
"They have to be reliable," says Hiller. "They have to stand up to the baseball team's bats."