The condition of bathrooms in Boston Public Schools, and in other urban districts, has fueled public outrage for years, with broken taps and empty towel dispensers seen as sorry symbols of a failure to meet even basic needs.
But across the state and country, an even more fundamental problem is gaining attention: increasing restrictions on students’ access to bathrooms, as administrators keep more restrooms locked and off limits for more of the school day.
Driven by efforts to curtail teen vaping, and to prevent outbreaks of vandalism sparked by the TikTok trend known as “Devious Licks”, the widespread crackdowns on bathroom access have left students in some schools searching urgently for unlocked stalls — and pining for any open restroom, no matter how broken or dirty. As teenagers learn to hold their urine for hours – or stop eating and drinking at school to avoid discomfort — the outcry against the closures from students and parents has grown louder.
“I understand that there are safety concerns, but the whole school shouldn’t have basic human rights taken away,” said Nevaeh Lopez, 16, a student at Holyoke High School who started an online petition to push back against bathroom closures at her school this spring.
The issue has provoked fiery debate at school committee meetings and in online forums around the region in recent months, as well as calls and e-mails to principals and school nurses. A post about bathroom restrictions at New Bedford High School, on the New Bedford Live Facebook page in October, garnered nearly 200 comments, from students who described missing class time while waiting in long bathroom lines, and from adults who placed blame squarely on the teenagers. (“If they would act like civilized human beings they would be able to be trusted,” wrote one.)
There is no doubt uncivilized — and sometimes violent — acts have taken place in school bathrooms. Several students were suspended at Wilmington High School in March after they picked up another student and tried to force his head into a toilet in a boys’ bathroom. “What is equally disturbing is the fact that other students were present and did nothing to stop the incident, and in fact recorded the altercation,” Superintendent Glenn Brand said later.
In Worcester, when student leaders raised concerns about locked bathrooms as part of a presentation to the School Committee in January, then-Superintendent Maureen Binienda defended the practice. “There have been some serious injuries, serious fights, drugs in bathrooms, so the reason they get locked is for school safety,” she said.
School leaders nationwide have reported a general uptick in discipline and behavior issues, including fighting and bullying, since students returned to full-time, in-person school following two years of disruption. The troubling trend has been linked to the mental health toll of the pandemic, and to social development delays possibly caused by students’ recent isolation.
Student use of electronic cigarettes has also risen at “epidemic” rates in recent years, health officials have warned. As countless school bathrooms have become de facto vaping lounges, desperate school leaders have grasped at any possible solution, including removing doors from restroom stalls and installing vape-detection sensors.
Yet even Donna Mazyck — head of the National School Nurses Association and a leader in the fight to curb teen vaping — said rampant restroom shutdowns are not the answer.
“It could be very upsetting to a student to show up at a locked bathroom and to have to worry, ‘Will I make it [to another] in time?’” Mazyck said. “It affects the school climate, and even if a handful of children feel unwelcome, that affects their learning. ... It’s a problem when a student runs into the house at the end of the day, drops their backpack and races to the bathroom.”
Staffing shortages, exacerbated by pandemic burnout, have reduced the number of hall and restroom monitors available in many districts, forcing more closures of unsupervised bathrooms. But staffing is a problem that can be solved, said Worcester School Committee member Tracy O’Connell Novick, who spoke forcefully against the locking of bathrooms at the committee meeting in January.
“I taught high school, I know why we lock bathrooms, and I don’t think it should be against a policy — I think it should be against the law,” O’Connell Novick told the School Committee. “There are things that are right and things that are wrong, and denying students access to bathrooms is wrong.”
State law requires that all students have access to restrooms that are sanitary, safe, and adequate, Wellesley attorney Andra Hutchins said, but the law does not specify how many bathrooms must be available per student, except in the case of special education schools.
In Holyoke, Lopez said it took awhile for her to notice the scarcity of unlocked bathrooms. It wasn’t until she mentioned the problem to friends and relatives last winter, and saw their reactions, that she realized how deeply it struck her, too, as wrong.
“I was like, have we been brainwashed?” she said. “It took someone outside saying something for me to see it, and even then I questioned myself, like, ‘Am I being dramatic?’”
After the petition she posted on a local website drew hundreds of signatures, school leaders asked her to remove it, Lopez said; she refused, but said it disappeared from the site soon after. (It remains posted on change.org.)
School leaders said they closed bathrooms periodically to address “unsafe behaviors”, but once they made it clear that second floor bathrooms would stay open all day, “students and families understood ... and appreciated the plan to have open bathrooms at all times.”
Students at Boston Latin Academy were more satisfied by the swift response this spring from their administrators, who reversed a short-lived program of bathroom closures within 10 days after students posted their own petition and aired their concerns.
Some administrators suggest the loss of access has been blown out of proportion. New Bedford schools spokesman Arthur P. Motta Jr. said via e-mail that “restrooms (save one) were in operation” last fall, notwithstanding the outraged reaction on Facebook. Motta did not respond to further questions or an interview request.
Mazyck, of the school nurses’ association, encouraged better planning, and more consultation with school nurses and counselors, to ensure equal bathroom access, especially in large school buildings.
“Clearly you need a policy — you can’t wing it,” she said. “You need to map out what’s needed, building by building, and you need to understand that this can impact children’s health.”
At Boston Latin Academy, head of school Gavin Smith said the school’s approach will be refined over the summer, with various options in discussion for next year. In Worcester, O’Connell Novick said she plans to talk with the district’s new superintendent about ways to improve access there.
“We give a lot of lip service to students as stakeholders,” she said, “but if our policies aren’t serving them, we need to fix it.”