Lobbying for Lavatories

July 1, 2005
Tactics for improving school restroom conditions.

The statistics are sobering: more than one-third of student restrooms in the United States lack basic sanitary supplies like toilet paper, soap and paper towels, according to a survey of middle- and high-schoolers conducted by Opinion Research Corporation, Princeton, N.J. Perhaps that is why as many as 7.8 million secondary school students across the nation avoid using the restroom during the school day.

This lack of basic sanitary supplies (which in other public settings is mandated by local health departments) was a particular issue among the female high-schoolers polled in the survey; 53 percent of girls age 15 to 17 say their student restrooms lack the basics.

Students, teachers, administration and parents should be concerned about the deplorable state of school restrooms, and not just the lack of sanitary supplies. In fact, 62 percent of the student bathroom-avoiders polled cite foul odors (“it stinks in there,” they say) as the reason for eschewing the facilities at school. Other reasons cited include: clogged toilets (30 percent), no doors on the stalls (23 percent), and that the restrooms are “scary and dangerous” (15 percent).

Although it may be difficult to draw a link between cleaner bathrooms and academic achievement, it is common sense that students will pay closer attention in class if they're not holding it in. Indeed, bathroom breaks are essential for a good school day, and the students surveyed about their school restrooms recognize the problems that may confront their peers who do not use the restrooms during the school day. Forty-three percent say students who avoid using the restroom at school can't concentrate on their school work, causing their grades to suffer, while 42 percent say students get sick from holding it in all day.

Changing student behavior

A small number of students polled say the restroom is “the janitor's problem,” not theirs, but most feel students should take responsibility for their school restrooms. Eighty-two percent say that students should report problems to the janitor or the principal's office, although only 24 percent say they actually have done so. Others agree that students should get personally involved in making restroom conditions better:

  • 65 percent of those surveyed say that students should stop engaging in graffiti and vandalism in restrooms.

  • 55 percent say students should pick up trash off the floor.

  • 52 percent say students should participate in restroom cleanup and beautification efforts.

  • 70 percent say students who vandalize or abuse the restrooms should be punished.

  • About one-quarter of students surveyed say that students should strike to protest bad restroom conditions.

Changing student behavior is one key to improving school restroom conditions. If students think it is acceptable to write graffiti on the bathroom walls; drop litter on the floor; engage in smoking, bullying or other dangerous behavior; or otherwise abuse the restrooms, no amount of custodial attention will keep these things from happening again. However, if students recognize that they have control or ownership over this aspect of their day-to-day lives, it becomes part of the maturing and growing process.

The key is to teach students respect for themselves, others and property. Also, evaluate the procedure for student restroom use. Some schools “dole out” a portion of toilet paper for students who ask to use the restroom. Others require students to carry a roll of toilet paper as a sort of “hall pass” to be returned after the restroom visit. Still others mount toilet-paper dispensers outside the actual toilet stall itself, perhaps thinking that the farther the paper is from the toilet, the less likely that paper will be used to clog the toilet. Think about the message that sends to students.

Additional suggestions for improving student behavior relating to the restroom:

  • Get students involved

    Each student club or organization can “adopt” a restroom as part of its philanthropic activities. Although students should not be expected to make structural or plumbing changes to the restroom, they can paint, decorate or accessorize the restrooms to make them more comfortable places. And once the restrooms look nicer, students may be more likely to help keep them clean.

  • Get adults involved

    In addition to faculty, administration and staff, involve parents and community members. During the school day, teachers and staff can monitor the restrooms, following a formal schedule. Include restroom visits as part of “back-to-school” or parent-teacher meetings. PTAs, like student groups, also can adopt a restroom in the school. Ask local civic leaders, coaches and “hometown heroes” such as police and firefighters to come in and talk about citizenship and self-respect.

  • Involve the curriculum

    The issue of proper personal hygiene should be incorporated into health, physical-education or family and consumer-science classes.

Make maintenance easier

Some custodians are responsible for cleaning more than 25,000 square feet of space per night, so it's easy to see how schools can be trapped in a game of catch-up when it comes to keeping restrooms clean. Fortunately, schools can cut costs and maintenance time, and improve the condition of student restrooms:

  • Update cleaning procedures

    Standardized cleaning procedures and more efficient cleaning tools make restroom cleaning easier. Start by developing an inventory checklist for the restroom to track paper and soap product usage, as well as plumbing, ventilation and other items that need to be repaired or replaced. Use that checklist each time the restroom is checked or cleaned. A similar form can be developed to track vandalism/abuse problems.

  • Install high-capacity, easy-load systems

    Jumbo-sized toilet-paper systems and high-capacity soap and towel dispensers help reduce the number and frequency of change-outs, and ensure adequate supply. One-handed loading and keyless maintenance make refilling dispensers easier and quicker.

  • Simplify

    A coordinated family of products makes it easier to manage inventory and avoids force-fitting towels, tissue and soap into incompatible dispensers, or worse — leaving loose towels and toilet paper out in the open, which can invite trouble from mischievous students.

  • Check for durability and design

    When choosing dispensers and fixtures, select those made of durable, abuse-resistant materials. Hollow-core metal toilet partitions are low-cost, but are the least durable and corrosion/impact-resistant. Vandal-resistant partitions made of dark-colored materials foil would-be graffiti artists and are more resistant to scratches and corrosion. Look for dispensers with contoured design (vs. hard corners), which are more difficult to pull off the wall or to have objects like cigarettes placed on them. Key-lock doors on these dispensers help reduce pilferage as well.

French is education segment manager for Kimberly-Clark Professional, Roswell, Ga.


In a recent survey of middle- and high-schoolers, students gave opinions about why they might avoid their school restrooms:


Percentage who said that “foul odors” prevented them from using the restrooms.


Percentage who avoided restrooms because of “clogged toilets.”


Percentage of students who said that “no doors on the stalls” were a reason they avoided school restrooms.


Percentage who said that their restrooms are “scary and dangerous.”

Survey source: Opinion Research Corporation, Princeton, N.J.

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