[Sign up to receive a newsletter for The Great Divide, a new investigative series that explores educational inequality in Boston and statewide. And please reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org with story ideas and tips.]
Eleven-year-old Louisiana vividly remembers sitting in her fourth-grade math class one afternoon two years ago, rocking back and forth and shaking one leg. She needed to distract her mind from her uncomfortably full bladder. It had been hours since she’d gone.
She has long relied on what she called the “pee dance” to help her avoid the bathrooms at Blackstone Elementary in the South End. Urine coated the floor and toilet seats. The sink faucets were broken. She avoided the space whenever, and however, she could.
But this time the pee dance failed Louisiana. Feeling a wetness in her pants, she called her teacher over to her desk and asked to go to the nurse’s office for a change of clothes.
“It was embarrassing,” said Louisiana, whom the Globe is not identifying by her full name because of privacy concerns. “I was too old to pee [on] myself.”
Louisiana shouldn’t be embarrassed, but perhaps Boston should. Filthy, unsanitary, and often lacking basics like toilet paper and hot water, the bathrooms of the city’s public schools are, far too frequently, in appalling condition. It is not a conventional measure of success or failure in the city’s schools, but it is a telling one: What does it say to the children of the schools that they are expected, as they strive to learn, to put up with such facilities? Or avoid them at all cost — and great discomfort?
More: What does it say about a system that tolerates such conditions? Is it really asking too much to have soap at every sink?
The record of subpar performance, and utter failure, on this score is thick and disheartening, a Globe review found. Last year, city public health inspectors found problems — from nonflushable toilets to obnoxious odors — in 89 of 111 Boston Public School buildings they visited. A 2016 survey of more than 2,000 students, parents, and staff found that nearly two thirds rated the district’s bathrooms as “poor” or “fair.” And the vast majority of the more than 30 students, parents, and teachers interviewed in recent weeks by the Globe described the bathrooms as gross, even dangerous, citing the prevalence of missing soap and toilet paper, urine stench, and leaks — even feces and sanitary pads strewn on the floor.
Visits by Globe reporters to five schools over the last six months confirmed these generally drab and depressing conditions.
Data from the health inspections also suggest some inequities in access to appropriately maintained facilities. When inspectors visited the Higginson/Lewis K-8 School in Roxbury, where 93 percent of students are black or Latino, they found no toilet paper in 17 out of 18 stalls.
By contrast, at the Kilmer K-8, where half the students are white, inspectors reported well-stocked toilet paper dispensers and no significant sanitary concerns.
Systemwide, shabby conditions are so commonplace that the Boston Teachers Union took the rare step of making clean, well-stocked student bathrooms one of its contract demands in 2017.
“It’s a matter of public safety and health,” said Boston Teachers Union president Jessica Tang. “We shouldn’t have to advocate for things like that, but we did.”
Boston school officials said that custodians are now better trained and expectations are clearer: All bathrooms should be thoroughly cleaned and restocked every night and there are extra supplies on hand in each building. At some schools, bathrooms are “touched up” during the day. Tang said she has heard fewer complaints from teachers since the changes.
“All of our students deserve not only well-cleaned, well-stocked, and properly maintained restrooms, but clean and functional school building facilities,” said Jessica Ridlen, the district’s director of communications, in a statement.
After hearing some of the specific concerns, Ridlen on Saturday added that Superintendent Brenda Cassellius and Mayor Martin J. Walsh have committed to an additional $1.7 million in the upcoming school budget for custodial staff, on top of the $24 million allocated in the current year.
Boston school officials did not provide the Globe with data on their own regular bathroom inspections. But some of the best evidence comes from the children.
Nearly all of the two dozen students interviewed by the Globe, who come from 13 different schools, said they are not seeing — or smelling — much in the way of results from the district’s strengthened maintenance efforts. The bathrooms at Josiah Quincy Upper School in the South End consistently stink and feature profanity-laced graffiti on the walls, said Mohamed Harkous, a freshman there. “I’m not going near those bathrooms,” he said.
A dirty bathroom can have negative consequences far outside its walls, students said. They can’t concentrate in class when they’re distracted by the need to go. They can’t fully connect with school when they don’t feel respected. And they can’t stay healthy without regular access to soap and, well, basic relief.
The sorry state of Boston’s school bathrooms is not a total anomaly in the metro region or among large urban school systems. But parents, educators, and students who have had the experience of visiting school bathrooms in both the city and suburbs said Boston’s are particularly bad.
Even students in some of the elite exam schools complain about it.
Fifteen-year-old Daisy Ogbesoyen described Boston Latin Academy’s restrooms in one word: nasty. They smell and there are mysterious shoebox-sized holes in the ceiling, she said. The “mirrors” are framed pieces of stainless steel scratched to the point where students can’t see their reflections. (When a reporter visited accompanied by a district communications staff member on a preannounced visit, the mirrors were scratched but the bathrooms were relatively clean. Two out of three soap dispensers in most bathrooms were nearly empty, even though it was only mid-morning. The rooms smelled like cinnamon air freshener.)
Perhaps the reporter’s presence made a difference, because cinnamon is not a scent that Daisy has ever encountered in the bathroom. She doesn’t drink much water during the day and tries to delay going to the bathroom until she makes it home at 2:30 p.m. “If I have to pee, I’m usually shaking my leg,” she said. “I’m not listening.”
Students said it’s not just about the gross factor for them: The discomfort of needing to go distracts from the work — and even fun — of school.
An 18-year-old at Josiah Quincy Upper School in the South End said the bathroom disorder — including overflowing trash barrels and the stench of menstrual blood — impede her ability to focus on schoolwork. (The student did not want to be named because she fears retribution from teachers and counselors at the school for speaking out.)
She routinely avoids the bathroom unless she has her period, when she carries hand sanitizer to clean her hands. There’s never soap, she said.
Worse, the custodian has of late been locking the bathrooms for two and a half hours of the school day for reasons that are unclear to her and her peers. Students, she said, have to borrow a master key kept in a teacher’s room. She has missed as much as 10 minutes of math class — her most challenging subject — while waiting for the key.
Boston Public Schools former spokesman Dan O’Brien said the district doesn’t have a policy regarding limiting access to bathrooms, or track how often it happens, but the “practice is certainly not encouraged.” District officials try to intervene when they learn of schools limiting bathroom access, he said. The Josiah Quincy’s co-headmaster Richard Chang did not return e-mails or phone calls seeking comment.
Eleven-year-old Nuriel Gutman said a urine stench emanated from the boys bathrooms and into the hallway at the Dennis Haley Pilot School in Roslindale, whose lower school campus he attended through fifth grade. There were no locks on the stall doors or soap in the dispensers.
He made a point of always going to the bathroom right before leaving his house in the morning. The strategy worked a lot of the time, but not always. “It comes to a point, you just have to will yourself not to go to the bathroom,” he said.
In fourth grade, for instance, Nuriel’s last class of the day was an important one: reading. But by that time of day, he was far more preoccupied with his bladder than the text.
Boston students have been unhappy with school bathrooms for a very long time. Nearly 20 years ago, high school students campaigned to get soap, paper towels, and clean, working restrooms, according to Globe articles. The students won an agreement from the superintendent for janitors to sign a publicly posted checklist after cleaning and restocking bathrooms. Whether the custodians ever used those checklists isn’t clear, but they’re not around now, according to district facilities managers.
Boston school officials said they have been addressing the problem, particularly since the flurry of complaints in 2016 and 2017. After that, they provided more training for custodians, repaired ventilation systems for some bathrooms that were particularly smelly, and installed hand dryers to eliminate messy paper towels, among other things. “I don’t think we were doing the best that we could a couple of years ago,” said P.J. Preskenis, the district’s assistant director of facilities management. He believes the situation has improved but admits there’s still work to be done.
Most officials point to the age of Boston’s school buildings and the lack of investment in updating them as the main source of subpar bathroom conditions. The majority of Boston’s 125 schools were built before 1940 and haven’t been renovated adequately. With little financial help available from the federal government or state, Boston has deferred basic maintenance on buildings. (In 2017, Walsh pledged to spend $1 billion to modernize school buildings, but that would probably cover only the cost of building or renovating a few schools.)
Another problem, according to the custodians union, is staffing. Boston employs 390 full-time custodians to clean more than 125 buildings — around 30 fewer janitors than two decades ago, said Michael Lafferty, business representative for the Boston school custodians union. There were around a dozen more buildings back then. Many buildings, he added, have only one custodian, who is expected to do much more than clean. They shovel snow, maintain the heating and cooling systems, and open and close the buildings; they are paid around $55,000 a year, according to school officials. (There are also about 100 part-time custodians.)
When custodians go on vacation or get sick, there are only five “floaters” citywide to fill in, according to Lafferty. “Additional resources would help,” he said.
Ana Santos, a parent, has come to see bathrooms as an indicator of something larger about a school: a window into how well it’s run — and how much officials believe that the students there matter.
Santos, herself a BPS graduate, said there’s a stark contrast between bathrooms at her younger daughter’s school, West Roxbury’s Ohrenberger School, where nearly a quarter of the students are white — “it doesn’t smell like someone died in it” — and those at her older daughter’s school in Dorchester, where very few students are white.
West Roxbury parents have more time to advocate for their children since they are more likely to have flexible, white-collar jobs, according to Santos. And because the schools in West Roxbury perform better academically, they are higher on the district’s priority list, she added.
Santos recently visited TechBoston Academy in Dorchester for the first time to pick up her daughter. She likes the school’s curriculum and teaching approach, but thought the disorder in the bathrooms — including urine on the seats and overflowing trash bins — matched the disorder outside them. Rowdy crowds of kids roamed the halls even when class was in session.
The visit was the final straw: Santos decided on the spot that she would transfer her daughter to a new high school. “She’s not staying there.”
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.