There’s a new superhero on the lips of school children these days. He’s not as glamorous or muscular as Batman or Spider-Man, but he attracts attention and looks of disbelief wherever he goes. Armed with little more than a pair of yellow rubber gloves, Tom Keating—more commonly known as Bathroom Man—is on a crusade to improve school restroom conditions everywhere.
With upwards of 900,000 public school lavatories in the United States (Keating estimates that as many as forty percent are “horrific”), it’s a monumental, never-ending battle. “Everybody knows the problems. What people don’t spend time on is suggestions or solutions,” says Keating, 61, a self-employed educator based in the suburbs of Atlanta, Georgia. For Bathroom Man the problem goes beyond empty soap dispensers, cracked mirrors and overflowing toilets—it’s a fight against the forces of apathy. “Some school superintendents will say, ‘This is a problem that has been around forever and everybody has this problem,’” reports Keating.
Putting The Gloves On
Instead of giving in to this failure mentality, Keating started Project CLEAN (Citizens, Learners and Educators Against Neglect) in 1996. He got the idea from his son and daughter, who, along with a lot of other kids, avoided the restrooms at school at all costs. “I would be mowing the lawn and our next door neighbor, Ty, would race into his house to go to the bathroom because he held it in all day,” remembers Keating.
In fact, it was the neighborhood kids’ unending horror stories that led him to investigate the issues. “I got permission—which took a little doing—to go to a high school in Dekalb County [Georgia] and cleaned toilets for six hours one day,” he recalls. “I went back the next day and they were just as bad as they were [before I cleaned them].”
Today, Keating doesn’t need to don rubber gloves to be effective. “My job is as a coordinator, facilitator and cheerleader,” he says. “I’m trying to get school districts and kids to do what they ought to do.”
Taking The Gloves Off
To that end, Keating has authored a booklet entitled “Project CLEAN: Safe, Sanitary School Bathrooms” (Phi Delta Kappa International), explaining his systemic approach to better restrooms. First, Keating establishes a relationship with a school’s principal, “to make sure the principal and I get along and he or she trusts me,” he says. Step two is to take inventory of each restroom (using a checklist he developed based on his experiences in thousands of school bathrooms). Then he meets with students and select adults to work on solutions, which are later itemized in a two-page restroom improvement plan. Finally, he makes himself and other resources available to implement the solutions.
Some of the changes Keating commonly recommends are simple, such as changing the signage on exterior doors from “Boys” to “Men” and “Girls” to “Women.” Others are physical—installing doors on stalls for privacy and making sure bathrooms are stocked with soap and toilet tissue. However, the key is addressing behavioral issues—discouraging graffiti and peeing on the floor, for instance. “Everyone knows that if a word rhymes with ‘duck’ or ‘ditch’ and it's written on the wall it shouldn’t be there. You've gotta change the attitude and the environment, and you sure have to get more caring adults,” emphasizes Keating.
Smells Like Teen Spirit
Needless to say, coming into a school to talk toilets initially raises some eyebrows. “You walk up to 10 kids standing outside the cafeteria during lunch hour and say, ‘How are your restrooms?’ and they think you’re a pervert,” offers Keating. “But after they see you in the halls a few times and they know it’s serious they start asking questions like, ‘Why do you care?’ After a few days they start telling you things. And after about a week they start hugging you and giving you high-five’s, saying they are discouraged and want to work on this.”
While Keating maintains that his hands-on, one-school-at-a-time efforts are most effective, it’s obviously impractical—even for Bathroom Man—to be everywhere at once. In addition to providing information via the Project CLEAN booklet and his Web site, Keating is now advising his local school district on a major bathroom renovation project, and has even partnered with tissue/toilet paper manufacturer Kimberly-Clark on a local cleanup initiative. But Bathroom Man is thinking big, hoping to effect change on a national level, lobbying to establish standards for middle school and high school restrooms. “I'm trying to get state legislation changed, and I’m trying to get architects, builders and educators to change. I’m ready to do whatever I’ve got to do,” he says, frustration and determination increasingly evident in his boomy voice. “I want this national disgrace improved building by building.”
Of course, just like Bruce Wayne and Clark Kent have alter egos, Tom Keating has a life outside his Bathroom Man persona. When he’s not spending time with his wife and children, Keating can be found pursuing his other passion—penguins. For the past 16 years, the former teacher has been traveling the world, lecturing about the 17 different species of the flightless birds. “I’m Bathroom Man by day and Penguin Man by night,” he jokes.
Oddly enough, it’s sometimes difficult for Keating to separate his main interests. During an upcoming trip to the Falkland Islands he plans to study penguins and take in the sights and smells of some far-flung bathrooms. “I'll get a chance to see restrooms in the Falklands and will probably visit a school in Chile. This isn’t just a national problem—it’s an international issue,” he says.
Meanwhile, Keating continues to escalate the fight in the U.S., hoping to make everyone accountable for their behavior. “Only kids use and abuse student restrooms so I’m trying to get students to respect themselves, others and property while they’re in the restroom,” he says. But Keating also maintains that establishing across-the-board standards is essential. “In most states there are no standards for public school restrooms except for [a required] number of commodes,” he continues.
Four years ago Keating was approached about writing new standards, but was worried that he wasn’t yet educated enough about the issues. After more than six years of visiting lavatories Bathroom Man is now ready to lay down the law, and he knows exactly what he’s going to say: “I’m ready to write now. When can I come to the meeting?”
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