Use and Abuse

School maintenance concerns are an ongoing problem and are not expected to lessen anytime soon. The U.S. Department of Education reports record levels of students-more than 52 million in 1998-and predicts growth though 2007. That means districts will need more facilities, involving new construction, expansion or renovation of existing schools. Add to this an Associated General Contractor's study that found 74 percent of public schools are more than 25 years old, one-third more than 50 years old and two-thirds classified as being only adequate, and it follows that maintenance projects will expand significantly.

One area that traditionally has drawn a lot of attention is the school restroom. One reason is that restrooms often become hideaways for students bent on mischief-smoking or using drugs, defacing and damaging property or bullying schoolmates.

Vandalism wastes taxpayers' money, takes time away from education and inconveniences students while restrooms are locked for repairs. Schools must deal with vandalism because when restrooms are in disrepair, dirty or lacking supplies, it is difficult for students to maintain personal hygiene.

In addition, research suggests that students who attend well-equipped, modern facilities score higher academically than their peers in older, rundown schools. In fact, in several cities, when old schools were renovated or new schools built, students' test scores improved markedly. A well-cared-for school also is less susceptible to vandalism and violence.

Proper attention Providing well-equipped, neat and functioning restrooms requires administrative and custodial attention. How do you do this, especially if your school is plagued with overcrowding and violence, and the restrooms historically have been poorly equipped and maintained?

Look at the design, installation materials and restroom products used and make sure they are more durable and can handle high traffic and abuse. This may involve a simple retrofit of the restroom or a total rehabilitation.

First, design the new restroom or retrofit the existing one so it is difficult to vandalize or deface with graffiti. Next, research each product area required in the school restroom. Certain products can help, including:

-No-touch soap systems: These units dispense an appropriate amount of soap into a student's hands as he or she puts them under the dispenser. The units limit the amount of soap dispensed at one time and take longer to dispense than push systems. If a student is purposely trying to waste supplies, the dispensers minimize the damage.

-Sensor-operated faucets: Use of these units in schools has surged. An automated on-off function on the faucets can limit the use of water and prevent students from purposely leaving the water running. In addition, the hands-free operation can help those schools meet water conservation and ADA goals.

-Partitions: Install partitions that guarantee resistance to graffiti. Often, schools build and design restrooms with inexpensive materials. Partitions that students can bang or beat, or write or paint on are bound to cause problems. Finished stainless-steel panels and man-made stone look-a-likes are strong and offer surfaces for deterring graffiti.

Dark, solid phenolic partitions also are resistant to graffiti. Chemical protectants can be helpful in keeping paint or markers from sinking in to surfaces; they facilitate easier removal. Sacrificial plastic film also can protect partitions from permanent damage.

-Trash receptacles: Receptacles should be solid phenolic-faced and recessed because they are less prone to impact and graffiti. By placing them right below the towel dispensers, less trash is likely to end up on the floor.

-Caulking: Use caulk or grout that is waterproof and offers a glass-like finish. This material is difficult to write on and does not allow absorption or bleeding into crevices.

-Doors: Fiberglass-reinforced plastic doors are a good choice because they are lightweight, strong and carry fire ratings up to 11/2 hours. They work well in high-abuse areas because they are durable and resistant to graffiti and scuff marks, which usually wash off. In addition, these doors resist bacteria, mildew and rust. Gauge also is important when specifying doors. High-abuse situations warrant heavier-gauge doors. Doors that are 18 to 20 gauge are best to use in schools and residence halls.

-Flooring: A good choice here is vinyl floors with nylon facing. This type of flooring is durable, resists staining from graffiti, and is easy to clean.

-Bathroom tissue/towel dispensers: Again, look for more durable products that can better withstand the rigors of traffic, vandalism and abuse, and still work properly. One option is an ABS plastic, double-thick walled construction dispenser with a contoured design. This type of product withstands greater impact and force if grabbed or hit, and because it is rounded, it is less likely to be a resting place for cigarettes. Locking mechanisms, which are available on this type of dispenser, deter theft and vandalism.

-Lighting: School restrooms should have fixtures that provide uniform lighting levels with a good color-rendering index (CRI). Poorly designed fixtures with discolored diffusers can make a restroom look dingy. Dark, shadowy, off-color lighting can create the impression that the restroom is not clean.

-Mirrors: As these traditionally are glass, they can shatter and break. Consider polished stainless steel, with or without frames. Shatter-resistant or laminated glass are other options. Or, a plastic shield can protect glass mirrors.

-Personal care/protective-seat-cover dispensers: Recessed solid phenolic-faced or curved stainless steel are best for dispensing sanitary napkins, tampons, seat covers and other items. As with bathroom and towel dispensers, choose units with locking mechanisms to protect the products and the money inserted to pay for them.

Instituting policies Establishing policies for restroom usage, monitoring and maintenance can help minimize damage from vandals. Policies worth exploring:

-A repainting program. If a student writes on a wall, the student repaints the wall. Certain school districts, such as one in Tempe, Ariz., have carried out this policy with success.

-Keep restroom doors open at all times. Giving administrators, teachers or monitors easy access to a restroom reduces a student's temptation to deface property. Restrooms still can allow privacy to users even when the doorway is left open.

-Assign staff members times to check on restrooms throughout the day. If students are aware that staff may check the restroom at any time, it lessens the likelihood of vandalism.

-Make repairs quickly. A poorly maintained, rundown restroom provides the perfect opportunity for continued defacing. Again, students are less likely to vandalize a well-maintained, well-equipped restroom.

-Standardize the purchase of restroom products. This simplifies the maintenance and repair of systems. In addition, schools spend less time shopping around for replacement parts from a large number of manufacturers.

-Consider having students who are caught smoking scrub the walls and sinks. Smoke-free restrooms were the goal at an Allentown, N.Y., school district, where students must adhere to this policy.

Unfortunately, some level of vandalism will occur in school restrooms. Consider these prevention tips:

-A graffiti board. If a school provides a space such as a chalkboard and chalk for graffiti, chances are it will be used, and may deter more serious work with markers or paint.

-Smoke detectors. Install smoke detectors in restrooms. These can deter smoking, as well as vandalism.

-Keys to open the restroom. If teachers have keys, students need to ask the teachers when they want to use the restroom. This means fewer people in the bathroom at one time, less raucous behavior and possibly a reduced risk of vandalism.

-Cleansers, pigmented primer and matching surface paints. Keep these available for quick clean-ups and paint-overs.

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