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For 10-year-old Shane Bass Jr. the sudden appearance of toilet paper in the stalls of the second-floor boys bathroom at Higginson-Lewis K-8 felt like a kind of “magic.”
For as long as he could remember, the fifth-grader had trekked to the nurse’s office whenever he really needed to go. Only there could he count on a reliable toilet paper supply. Indeed, when Boston public health inspectors visited the Higginson-Lewis for a 2018 environmental audit, they found 17 out of 18 bathroom stalls devoid of toilet paper. The school is in Roxbury, less than a mile from the Boston Public Schools headquarters.
About two months ago, however, that sorry state of affairs abruptly changed. “All of a sudden, we had toilet paper,” Shane said. “It’s much better.”
Perhaps not so coincidentally, in early December the Globe published a story that exposed rampant neglect of the city’s public school bathrooms. The vast majority of the more than 30 students, parents, and teachers interviewed described the bathrooms as filthy and unsanitary, citing missing soap and toilet paper, urine stench, and leaks — even toilets covered with feces and sanitary napkins strewn on the floor.
Official reports back them up: The inspectors in the 2018 audit cataloged problems at 89 of 111 Boston Public Schools buildings, from door-less stalls to overwhelming odors. Although bad bathrooms were found in schools across the city, the data showed that schools like the Higginson-Lewis, where most of the students are from low-income families, often have the most deplorable conditions.
Students and staff at three schools mentioned in the Globe story said they have seen improvements, including more regular cleaning, reduced odors, and new janitors. At Higginson-Lewis, six of Shane’s classmates reported that they, too, have happily observed the reappearance of toilet paper. There have been other fixes as well.
Eleven-year-old Norlane Valbrun and her friends said the clogged toilets in a first-floor girls bathroom have been unclogged. The girls spoke to a reporter while taking a break after class one recent Friday afternoon, before the start of the traditional end-of-week “movie night.” In December, the girls said, maintenance workers shut the bathroom down for a week to complete the work. “Now they flush and aren’t flooding,” Norlane said. “I don’t mind going in there now.”
Since the bathroom improvements, kids not only use the bathrooms more — they also treat the spaces with more respect, some students said. “Kids aren’t throwing the toilet paper on the floor,” said Joiselys Williams, a sixth-grader.
Thirteen-year-old Mason Fricke, a seventh-grader, acknowledged some improvements, but added that they have not been sufficient to entice him to use the bathrooms more often. The stalls may have toilet paper but they are “still nasty,” he said, with kids leaving “poop on the floor.”
And just about everyone agrees that the district should not let up on its bathroom upgrades quite yet. Some of the restrooms at the Higginson-Lewis still have extra-small toilets — relics left from when the school served students as young as pre-kindergarten a few years ago (the school now enrolls children only in the third through eighth grades). “The toilet is for a toddler,” said Greg Lawson, whose son, a sixth-grader, stands 5 feet 5 inches tall. “How is my son supposed to use them?”
Students add that the undersized fixtures can unfortunately contribute to the poop on the floor problem.
The weekend that the Globe’s earlier story was published, Boston Public Schools officials committed to increase spending by $1.7 million next year to hire more custodians in the district.
But they dodged a more recent question on whether the changes at Higginson-Lewis had anything to do with the Globe’s Dec. 8 article. A written statement the communications office sent from the school’s principal, Darlene Ratliff, stated that “the facilities department diligently addressed complex issues related to our restrooms” — even working weekend hours.
“A clean school with clean routinely stocked and well-maintained bathrooms makes a huge difference to our children,” the statement concluded.
However the magic came about, the students at Higginson-Lewis couldn’t agree more.
Partial funding for this initiative is provided by the Barr Foundation, a Boston-based foundation that has made student success in high school and beyond a top priority. The Globe has complete editorial control over story selection, reporting, and editing.