When Bob Pickard ponders how to keep school restrooms clean, safe and working properly, he never underestimates the ingenuity — and mischievousness — of students.
“We've seen just about anything you can think of,” says Pickard, director of facilities and operations for Paradise Valley School District in Phoenix. “There is really a lot of nasty stuff that kids can do.”
The typical school restroom provides an enticing array of opportunities for the wayward student to raise a ruckus. Doors to kick, fixtures to hang on and swing from, walls to cover with graffiti, sinks to overflow, soap to squirt, towels and toilet paper to wad up and throw, drains to clog, floors to flood.
No one has yet solved the age-old puzzle of what makes restroom vandalism so appealing to students. For many school maintenance workers, trying to prevent damage is a fruitless effort.
“We just repair it after it's torn up,” says David Gannon, general supervisor of maintenance for Guilford County, N.C., Schools.
But even though they know the problem is not going to go away, school officials press on. Because they know a damaged restroom can become not only unsafe and unattractive, but also unhealthy, administrators continually are looking for equipment and supplies to combat student temptations.
Schools encourage their students to wash their hands. But getting students to turn on the faucet and clean their hands does not guarantee that they will turn off the faucet when they're done. Faucets with infrared controls can turn off water automatically, and spring-load faucets will shut off water flow after a few seconds.
Now the water is off, but the student's hands are wet. To handle that situation, some schools prefer hand dryers, while others have chosen paper towels. With automatic dryers, schools avoid the potential trouble that comes from students wasting paper towels or using them as projectiles. But those who prefer paper towels say automatic dryers aren't as flexible as paper.
Students also have been known to clog automatic dryers, which could cause them to overheat and start a fire. To discourage students from using more paper towels or toilet paper than is necessary, many schools have installed dispensers that are totally enclosed.
In reaction to students using soap to vandalize facilities, some schools no longer keep the dispensers filled. But health officials argue strenuously that the importance of having students wash their hands to prevent illness and disease far outweighs the problems that result from misuse of soap.
Leaving a Mark
The school restroom often is a place for students to express themselves in ways not available in the classroom. Graffiti may be considered artistic, but from a school administrator's perspective, it's vandalism.
Schools want to make it difficult to leave graffiti and easier for maintenance staff to remove it quickly. Schools usually opt for solid plastic partitions for bathroom stalls. They are resistant to rust and vandalism. Writing and carving can be removed, and the plastic can be heated and remolded to remove damage.
To prevent damage from occurring behind closed doors, some schools have placed sinks in hallways outside the bathroom where staff members can monitor behavior more easily. Other schools have removed the doors from restrooms. And in some cases, the individual bathroom stalls. However, students and parents may object about the lack of privacy.
“Some of our schools had the restroom doors removed, but new administrators came in and decided the schools needed privacy,” says Gannon.