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 first installment of Down the Drain: School Bathroom Privacy & Upkeep, on bathroom maintenance (and who pays for messiness) and school bathroom privacy.
What are bathrooms like at your school?
I'm a high schooler, but this happened when I was in middle school. One of the bathrooms in our middle school was clogged and there was a small puddle on the bottom of the stall. I think the takeaway from that was that our school did not have enough janitorial staff, because it did not get clean for the entire day. I feel like it just shows a bigger problem: schools being over or understaffed. That just means that a lot of these maintenance issues just can't be fixed immediately. And that affects students' comfort levels in schools.
I'm in a portable that has 10 classrooms and two bathrooms. We've had people like poop on the floor, pee on the floor, poop on in the sink one time. I think that never happens in the [main] building because there's no lack of admin. But in the portables, the rules are so lenient because no one's there to enforce those.
When I was in middle school, there was someone who wrote “Hi” on the bathroom stall wall with poop. Now that I'm in high school, there was a middle schooler who climbed into the ceiling and peed on somebody in another stall. They found a decapitated squirrel in a urinal. I think a lot of stuff just comes from students not really realizing who actually has to clean up their messes. There's that select few that are really terrible to the janitorial staff and makes bathrooms a lot worse for everybody–and more disgusting.
In middle school, I would avoid using the bathroom just because, for some reason, our middle school had a weird rule where we had three floors, two bathrooms every floor. But you could only use the bathroom in the office, which is on the first floor during the school day.
In high school I felt like it was a lot better, in terms of how clean it was, except like there have been instances where obviously it's messy and then sinks are leaking…..So people are avoiding the bathroom.
Warren County Student
We’ve had a lot of trouble in the last two years, and I think it all started because of [the] whole Devious Licks trend [As The New Edu’s Press Corps Editor, Ramona Pierce, covered back in 2021, the trend involved theft and social media-inspired pranks in schools. As Pierce wrote “many schools have had to shut down bathrooms, due to the theft of cameras.”] It really broke the way that our school has had to treat basically privacy. During classes it's very common for there to only be one boy's bathroom open in the entire school. During class breaks, which is when everybody's using them, so you can't really get any time to use them, that's when most of the bathrooms are open.
Janitorial staff is not paid enough to deal with these things and knowing that people don't consider who has to deal with these things just makes me really upset.
It’s also not only what's inside the bathrooms but also the type of bathrooms. I think in our school right now I think there [are] maybe two gender neutral bathrooms that I've heard of or seen in our school. One near the counselor's office and one near the regular office. I think that if we're trying to be supportive of everyone inside of the school, it's essential to look at who's being afforded to and if everyone is given the right to privacy.
I know for me, sometimes when I really need a break from class, I would just ask to go to the bathroom and then I just take a couple deep breaths, and just relax there for maybe a couple minutes before returning to class. If either the environment isn't conducive to de-stressing or if there isn't really a place for someone to de-stress during class, then that can also be harmful to certain demographics of students.
They are quite literally designed so that you don't have enough privacy. The door is so short and there's such a large crack in between the wall and the door and that's to disencourage people [from using] public restrooms. They were not made to be private. I get really uncomfortable using public restrooms, not only because I'm trans, but also I've walked into restrooms and I can like crystal-clear just see people using the restroom because they were not made to be private.
It feels like they discriminate between different heights of people–due to the stalls being so low and there's such a large crack underneath the stalls in between the walls of the stalls that it doesn't really feel like you ever have a true moment to yourself while you're in the bathroom. I think it's a solution for a lot of things, but just to give students more credit than I think the administration gives to them right now. I think having a conversation–most schools don't even have the proper infrastructure or systems in place to do that, for anything, not just bathrooms. But have a conversation with its students about bathroom use and the school's policies rather than taking them in the back of a policy booklet that we're given to in our agendas. I think [that] would go a long way in giving a lot of students more comfortability, safety, privacy and would lead to a better school environment.
Just the sheer lack of privacy in bathrooms, like just straight up dehumanizes people. It conveys the idea that people who use public restrooms aren't worth the privacy that restrooms should give.
Warren County Student
In terms of things that I think that the school could do for its population in relation to gender neutral bathrooms and vaping, I think a simple poll would go so much farther than people would think. I mean, even last year, talking about [it] when I was making something in relation to gender neutral bathrooms– a teacher thought there was like literally one transgender student in our entire school and I was like, I just know that is completely wrong. There are so many more populations than that, who would benefit from having a single stall restroom–thinking about people with neurodivergencies who get really uncomfortable and who also may be susceptible to violence in bathrooms, which happens often in Kentucky and in schools.
Also, people who are victims of sexual assault often find it way more comfortable to use the restroom in a place where they are alone. I think [a] simple polling would help fix that issue. And for vaping, I think that's a lot more complex and it's hard to discipline privacy – you don't want to take it away as a punishment for that. I definitely think learning, listening to students will always be the safest option for schools.
I think it's important to know whenever I walk into a bathroom and I see that it's empty–and I know it's like an experience for most people– everyone's just happy that they have the entire thing to themselves, cause it's like the privacy that you need and it's almost if we had that every day, that would be so nice. Especially when the bathroom is super crowded. There's such a long line and you have to go, I honestly feel uncomfortable because it's like everyone's just kinda like waiting on you. Me and my friends have always wondered what the men's restroom is like at our school because, like we've always heard stories–a lot of guys have expressed their concerns for it.
The girls' bathroom has a big mirror and like a ledge before you walk in so people can place their stuff down. The guys don't have that and then their little mirror on the other side of the urinals. I'm part of the Girl Up club and we were stock[ing] the bathroom. One of our guy friends – it was after school so there's like no one in the bathroom– we were like, can you take us inside, because we wanna see this? It was just shocking compared to the girls' bathroom.
There’s no privacy between the urinals. In terms of solutions, honestly I feel like there's not really a place within my school to like express our concerns where admin actually listens, because a lot of the time class officers, people like get mad at them for not getting stuff done, but like they'll express directly their concerns to administrators and they don't do anything about it. I feel like it's something that needs to start with the student and kind of transform to get the admin's approval for. Because ultimately at the end of day at my school, the admin has all the power. So if the admin were [to like] send out a poll or even just something where they get student interest in student voices, we could definitely make progress with that.