Back to School Begins with Bathrooms

School restrooms are “The most critical, yet overlooked aspect in the annual trek back to school,” says guest columnist Tom Keating, founder of Project CLEAN.

This month the 2012-13 school year gets underway for students, parents and administrators alike. Not exactly a new beginning, but a fresh start in a new grade with a new teacher, and maybe even a new school. For many the first day is a day of heightened expectations, for others a dispiriting end of summer, and for still others, a return to six-and-a-half hours a day of “holding it” because too many school restrooms stink—figuratively and literally.

For Project CLEAN (Citizens, Learners, and Educators Against Neglect), which I founded two decades ago in Decatur, Georgia, it’s a reminder that school restrooms are perhaps the most critical, yet overlooked aspect in the annual trek back to school.

Parents—perhaps preoccupied by vaccinations and shopping for new clothes and school supplies—typically don’t think much about school bathrooms.

Maybe the shopping list parents got from their kids’ school includes toilet tissue. The city of Detroit made the news recently, when back to school lists included toilet paper, owing to budget constraints.

Perhaps the student disciplinary code, which parents have to sign, mentions restroom conditions. But I doubt it.

And the messages found in student handbooks—which typically include a statement reminding students to report disruptive, unsafe, and/or unclean conditions in restrooms to an administrator—are rarely stressed during orientation.

Predictably, neither parents nor students commonly inspect the restrooms during Back to School Night or the annual Open House. Anyway, too often the restrooms in the front of school buildings are cleaned for visitors, yet how many guests go to locker rooms or inspect facilities for both genders?

Every year individual schools and school districts alike concoct a new motto, a pithy vision statement, and a rallying public relations shibboleth. Yet too many kids have their own saying: “The restrooms are nasty,” or “The school restrooms suck!”

That explains why approximately forty percent of middle and high school students avoid school bathrooms and hold it in all day.

This is why Project CLEAN has long worked to both improve school restrooms and raise awareness. At one high school in Delaware and another in Georgia I speak to every incoming class. I can tell you from experience that students recognize when someone is really concerned about restroom conditions, not just mouthing jargon or racing through sections of a student code of conduct.

The only motto worthy of its salt turns out to be “I care.”

Across the country there are about 15,000 school districts, with about 87,000 traditional schools. Assume there are eleven restrooms per building, and you realize that there are nearly a million restrooms, with countless commodes, urinals and sinks.

How can more of the estimated 64,000 elementary schools and 23,000 secondary schools be ready for the back to school season and keep locks and hooks on doors, and toilet paper, towel and soap dispensers supplied?

The macro issues associated with school restrooms can be daunting. Yet the most important number is one.

Does each student have one restroom, one stall, one working toilet paper dispenser, one sanitary receptacle, one soap dispenser, one hand dryer, one towel dispenser, one trash can, one mirror, one floor drain, one light, one school restroom that works each and every time he or she needs to eliminate?  I doubt it.

If your school restrooms are clean and ready, I say “Good Going!” If not, each parent, student, teacher, administrator and staff member must exemplify the motto “I care.”

Back to school begins with bathrooms.