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 second installment of Down the Drain: Vaping, Vandalism, & Bathroom Safety, on what happens in a school bathroom besides the obvious, from vaping to vandalism, and bathroom safety.
What do people do in your bathrooms apart from the obvious?
Vaping is ridiculously common and I literally just have to avoid using the bathroom in our schools because there's always such a strong vaping stench in there. And a lot of times I don't get home until really late either. And so I'm holding it [until] like seven at night and then I go to my bathroom at home because I don't want to use the bathrooms here.
I’d definitely say we don't have the vaping issue. I've maybe seen it a couple of times, not like a daily occurrence, But a lot of the time when I'm in the bathrooms, there are people in the stalls just like full on watching YouTube videos or on their phone. You can tell they're avoiding class, but sometimes there's a line in the bathrooms which kind of sucks–because people actually have to go!
What are your schools doing to address the issue of vaping, and do you have any feelings about that?
Warren County Student
Our school has been putting up signs in the bathrooms that are statistics and weird pictures of chemicals and mold, and it's like, “This could be your lungs after vaping.” I obviously hate being around that [vaping] when I go to the bathroom, but it's not a huge issue for me to encounter just because it's not directly affecting me, and it's sad that so many people are in the bathrooms for that reason.
Teachers do get sent to the bathroom sometimes. They'll be standing inside, and sometimes they'll be like standing outside if it's one of the smaller bathrooms, and that's not really an issue for me. But I can see how it would totally make other students uncomfortable to have a teacher in the bathroom. I think it's more of an issue in the girls' bathroom because I would say that there are just, I don't know that's an environment where there's more happening than people use in the restroom and like for serious reasons. In the men's restrooms it's more of people vaping than people actually using the restroom and people being annoying. I would say the teachers being around doesn't bother me but I can see how it would bother other people.
I remember one example that's– I would say almost laughable but it literally is laughable. The only time I remember the administration doing anything about vaping was over the announcements. Right before Halloween they read off a bunch of chemicals that are in vapes, and it was clear that even the person reading the announcements didn't know what they were. She said, “Don't vape; it's bad for you.” She called it the “spooky fact of the day” It was absolutely terrible and literally did nothing but give my first period a few laughs.
This isn't too connected to bathrooms but I feel like, especially in middle school, our admin are so scared to talk about drug use. They see the word “drugs” as a bad word and will not under any circumstances talk about it. It's so weird because it's a real issue. I just wrote a massive thing for my English class about drug use and it's so weird how one-dimensionally admin teams will see drug use and I don't like it.
What does bathroom vandalism look like at your school? If it's a problem, has it gotten worse or better over time?
I'll just start off mildly because I feel like some other people in this call have seen stranger things happen in their school bathrooms. But I've seen the containers that hold all the paper towels just broken–like someone opened it and then threw all the paper towels on the floor. Then there's obviously just the normal like scratching on the mirrors or stalls, which I don't know how people do that, nor do I know how they have the time to do that. But obviously there's just some questionable things on there that definitely isn't school-appropriate, but it's generally not jaw-droppingly crazy.
There was this big drug deal situation that happened at our school where people would lift up the ceiling tiles and take out the floor tiles and put drugs in there and then cover it back up. So they were destroying the ceiling and the floor, and then you know, using it for crime I guess.
Warren County Student
Vandalism in the bathrooms isn't really an issue and I think that also has to do with the bathrooms that I'm using. I'm using the men's restroom. I also think it's important to mention that my school has no gender neutral bathrooms available at all during the day. But we have had some really serious issues with vandalism this year on other school property, like football field stuff, which I think is important to mention because it's the same type of idea.There was a picture of a girl who’s a senior and it was vandalized horribly, with really sexist and misogynistic things. I never heard any admin talk about it or anything; no teachers mentioned it. I saw it from a Snapchat of a Snapchat story and it was horrible.
In my school, I wouldn't say there is anything that's really, really bad but it's just there and we're all so used to it we don't even think anything of it. Usually all the stalls have something on them. There's always something to read while you use the bathroom. There's been some things like slurs,, but at that point usually no one reports it because there's no way the admin is going to find out who did it. And like Aiden said, there are some more wholesome things–like people write their initials, people write stories, there's just a little bit of everything.
Even though I go to Leestown, I marched for Dunbar, so I was there every weekend for like three months and I have never seen any vandalism in the portable bathrooms at Leestown. But the vandalism at Dunbar was so funny because it wasn't anything too bad–it was just petty arguments between people.
Warren County Student
I'm piggybacking off of Kei a little bit. Obviously, it's high schoolers who are using these bathrooms. So I think that, in some ways, it goes really wrong, but in other ways it becomes kind of a fun social thing–a place where students can say things anonymously and people will see it no matter what. I've seen some like “trans rights”, I've seen cool things like, this teacher is being weird about this. It’s things that are read in the bathrooms and I think that's a really cool little part of vandalism in the bathrooms. Sometimes it's really mean, but sometimes it's a cool anonymous space. It's like a little Reddit, except you just vent about the issues happening in your school.