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School bathrooms: Would you "go" there?

Dave Schechter
Senior National Editor

When you visit your child’s school, do you poke your head into the bathrooms? Do you ask your child about the cleanliness of those bathrooms? You might be surprised to learn how your child tries to avoid going to the bathroom at school.

Tom Keating wouldn’t be surprised.

Keating, a former teacher and school board member, is the “Bathroom Man,” the pied piper of school bathroom cleanliness.

Back in the 1980s his children, then in middle school and high school, complained about the condition of their school bathrooms. Keating researched the situation and created “Project CLEAN” (Citizens, Learners and Educators Against Neglect) in 1996. From his home near Atlanta, he has traveled across the country and even overseas, preaching a gospel of bathroom cleanliness.

As you can hear in this interview from a recent edition of the “Etiquette Lady” online radio show, Keating speaks with the fervor of an evangelist about the issue.

In the early days of his crusade, Keating was given permission to clean the bathrooms of a DeKalb County, Georgia, high school. “I went back the next day and they were just as bad as they were before,” he said. Today, Keating no longer regularly dons rubber gloves. “My efforts are advocacy, educational, and motivational with 11-18 year old students and always searching for caring adults to help them have safe, clean, hygienic restrooms in public schools, libraries, parks, rec centers, and swimming pool complexes,” he told CNN.

Keating has estimated that one-third of more than 900,000 public school bathrooms in this country are dirty, unhealthy or unsafe. He has found empty soap dispensers in 40 percent of the schools he visits. “It is for a range of issues: kids often vandalize soap dispensers, spit or pee in them, tear out the bags of hand-washing solutions, crack the plastic box. Janitors get discouraged and quit refilling. Administrators "solve" their bigger vandalism problems by ignoring the `broken window' hypothesis,” Keating said. Regardless of why it happens, kids going to the bathroom or playing sports may not be washing up properly afterward.

To the empty soap dispensers add such problems as an absence of paper towels or not enough toilet paper or no doors on the stalls or cracked mirrors or urine on the floor or graffiti on the walls or broken faucets or an unpleasant stench. The result: a greater chance of disease or injury, not to mention children whose academic performance and health suffer by not meeting the need “to go” because they won’t go “there.”

Keating said the finger of blame should not be pointed at maintenance staffs. “School district staff plumb toilets, install piping and clean commodes. Yet young adults often do their business without the common courtesy of flushing. Or, if a classmate leaves his business, the next stall occupant may refuse to modify the crime scene with a slight foot action on the flush valve. Women students with sanitary product hygiene can be as unthoughtful,” Keating has written.

Keating also blames apathy, on the part of parents, whom he says must talk with their children about what many consider a “taboo” subject, and school administrators, for whom bathroom cleanliness may not rank at the top of their pile of priorities. He suggests that bathroom cleanliness be included with other topics in the curriculum for health classes. One solution Keating has worked on is to educate teams of students to monitor the cleanliness of their school bathrooms, making their effort an educational tool – and a means of increasing respect for the men and women who clean up the messes left by students.

When a column in a Texas high school newspaper warns that, “Walking into one of the school restrooms is similar to walking onto a crime scene: the smell is overwhelming and you always fear what is lingering behind closed doors,” Keating can be heartened that there are students who acknowledge the problem. When that same columnist writes that, “The custodians . . . do the best they can to keep our campus squeaky clean. It comes down to the students respect to school restrooms as well as the funds the school has to keep the toilets, doors and sinks repaired,” Keating can be assured that his message is getting out there.