Down the Drain: Real School Bathroom Accessibility

This is the third installment of Down the Drain on bathroom policy, from time to actually get to the bathroom to the lack of accessible, gender neutral bathrooms.

gender logo bathroom stall graphic

Kentucky students are more than familiar with the frustration, nuance, and often plain absurdity of the issues surrounding a common pain point: school bathrooms. (Yes, you read it right!) Bigger than to-go-or-not-to-go, school bathrooms are a hot topic–one with complications that were exacerbated by COVID-19, important distinctions on a student’s right to privacy, and discussion on what accessibility really functions like.

School bathrooms are notoriously multidimensional, sought out by students seeking an escape from class alongside those just using the bathroom for its basic purpose. Schools have struggled with maintaining the privacy of the location (a privacy coveted by students for a multitude of reasons, ranging from mental health needs to the ability to vape unhindered) while still ensuring that bathroom rules prioritize safety and are created and enforced in a manner concordant with school policy. 

Policies implemented to regulate bathroom usage range widely in strictness and impact, but inside schools, students and adults alike often find their time consistently occupied by the issues surrounding school bathroom usage. It is common for teachers to be stationed as bathroom monitors, for students to be limited by numbers in bathroom attendance, for administrators to initiate unclear bathroom restrictions, and for staff to be left to deal with the messy realities of bathroom misuse. While the necessity and fairness of the rules and realities surrounding school bathrooms is up for debate, it is clear that many students continue to express overwhelming negative experiences with school bathrooms. According to a fall 2021 Kentucky Incentives Prevention survey of 93,000 Kentucky middle and high school students, roughly 17% of Kentucky students say that they feel unsafe in bathrooms.

This broad statistic underscores an oft-voiced student sentiment: that school bathrooms are a subject of discontent for students, and ultimately teachers, staff, and administrators as well. To get the scoop on the specifics of school bathroom happenings, two Kentucky Student Voice Team facilitators sat down with five Kentucky middle and high school students. Read on to hear the students’ first-hand experiences, their takes on specific issues, and their suggestions for what schools can do to solve them.

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity. In order to protect student privacy, some names have been changed.

This is the third installment of Down the Drain: Real School Bathroom Accessibility, on bathroom policy, from time to actually get to the bathroom to the lack of accessible, gender neutral bathrooms.

In terms of just getting to use them, are there any difficulties surrounding that? 


For my school in general, they're pretty lenient. As long as you don't go the first and last five minutes of class. Most teachers will say yes, but last year I had a really weird encounter with a male teacher.I would use the bathroom at max once in a class period and to keep in mind, it was my third period class and we would have lunch at the very end, which is the last lunch period in our school.  I would use the bathroom like obviously when I'm done with my work, the class is doing nothing.

I would go accordingly so that I'm not like missing out on content and one time I went and the teacher was like, “You use the bathroom too much. If you keep on going I'm going to have to call your parents and tell them that you have a bladder issue." I was like, what

I wasn't skipping class. I know a lot of students do misuse that privilege. It's not like I was gone for 10, 15 minutes at a time. I was really uncomfortable that he would bring that up, and I told my parents and obviously  they were like, “Okay, use the bathroom–obviously we're not gonna get mad at you for a quote-unquote bladder problem.”  But he did that to multiple female students and he never said that to male students, which makes me super uncomfortable, because I know a lot of girls are on their periods and if a guy teacher is specifically telling them they're not allowed to use the bathroom, it sucks.


It definitely depends. I think the openness of the bathrooms isn't really a problem. Our administration doesn't lock the bathrooms, but it definitely depends on your teacher. Some of them will allow you to go to the bathroom earlier or later in the block. However, in a couple of the syllabi that I read from my sophomore year, they limited the amount of times that students could go to the bathroom in a semester. I remember one extreme example– and this was never enforced–was that on the syllabus they prohibited using the bathroom in class more than three times a semester.

I was really happy they didn't bring that up because it was very concerning.. The second point I wanted to bring up was that depending on the class that you're taking, it can feel like you're missing out. You feel bad for not being in class when you really need to use the restroom because you miss out on very important content. So when  you have these hard classes and you need to really pay attention to the lectures, if you go to the bathroom even for five minutes it can feel like you missed out on a lot and you're already behind. In that kind of high stress environment, it's not really healthy.


We have a 15-15 rule in our school, where in the first 15 minutes and the last 15 minutes of class you can't go to the bathroom, and most of our periods are only like 50 minutes. That's like 20 minutes to go to class, and the middle 20 is usually the most productive. Our student government has continuously brought this up to the administration –that kids can't use the bathroom because the only other real opportunities we get are  lunch, where people only have about 10 minutes to eat,and then the 5-minute passing time between classes. It  takes five minutes just to get to your class. From a more student perspective,  as I previously mentioned, there are people vaping in there all of the time and so you usually don't want to go to the bathroom if someone's in there vaping.


I am a trans guy, right? So  we have one gender neutral bathroom in the school and before Pre-Eng[ineering] was in the portables, we were in a different portable but really close to the building. I would walk across the school to use that bathroom. But now that's not an option. Since we're so far away we have to have an admin walk us up and down. It's really weird using the restroom in schools because they don’t really have that option  for the people in the portables.

What is the gender neutral bathroom situation at your school, or the conversations surrounding it? 


I am a trans guy, so a gender neutral bathroom would be a really good thing for me. Before, in the old portables when we were a very short walk  from the building, we could easily walk to it without the need of an admin. But now that I'm in the big portable, that's not an option for me anymore. It would be so nice if I was able to use that gender neutral bathroom because any time I have to use the bathroom in the portables, I always have to use the women's bathroom, even though I don't want to.  I feel like I could use the guy's bathroom, but  I might get in trouble with the teachers or something. So I just don't wanna risk it.


In my school we have one gender neutral bathroom–the thing about it is like my school [is] there's like 2000 kids, [a] very diverse population. We have many non-binary, trans students. We have four floors in our school and it's [the bathroom] on one specific corner and it's a big inconvenience, especially if your class is on the third floor and you have to go all the way around. For one of my clubs, we stock all the girls' bathrooms and nonbinary bathroom with feminine products, like pads, tampons.

We were looking [for] where the gender neutral bathroom was because we knew our school had one but we didn't know where it was. We  asked like a bunch of staff and admin and they're like, oh, like I'm not sure. I literally had to go to the counselors and they're like, oh yeah, it's by our office. But it's the fact that like most of the staff and administrators like didn't even know that there was a gender neutral bathroom. So for many freshmen, they won't even know that–our school doesn't actively promote it or just talk about it. The gender neutral bathroom like itself is a pretty nice bathroom. It's like a singular stall.  We restock the bathrooms with pads and tampons I'd say every week with the club I'm in, and all the pads and tampons in that bathroom get used up. It’s proof that people are actively using it.

Warren County Student

At my school we do not have any gender neutral bathrooms that are guaranteed to be open [during]  the day. We only have two in the building. One of them is in our second gym that just got added on and it's like if you're, if you're not in gym class, then it's not gonna be close to you. It also is literally locked during the school day and only open during events. Our other one is in our theater–that one might be unlocked but you also could get in trouble for using it because no one's supposed to be back there if there's not a theater class happening.

I drafted–wrote– a bill and brought it to KYA last year all about making it mandatory for schools to have gender neutral bathrooms for every single floor of the school building. There was a certain teacher organizing KYA and she was like, well that's great because we have one. I was like, but it's not open.


Last year at my school, the former eighth graders–now ninth graders–organized [a] petition to get rid of the ban on hoodies. I think it had like 1600 signatures. It was a massive success. And that year prior, the admin had preached like, if you have an issue with our school, take it up with us. I don't think the admin even met with them. They completely ignored it.  That's not related to the bathrooms, but it does show, especially at our school, the admin will say, Hey, if you have an issue we'll listen to it, but they're not gonna listen to it because hundreds and hundreds of students said this is an issue, we need to fix it.

They all worked together as a team and this was a massive, months-long thing. It was like the biggest student-led movement that Leestown has had in forever and nothing happened because the admin just doesn’t listen to students. Even if we had a poll, we can't make the change that we need to make because we are not listened to. We are not given the voice that we need to make our schools better. 


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