PTSAs and School Restrooms

Adults in the 1980s readily understood the initials PTA — Parent Teacher Association — the largest child advocacy organization in the nation. Now, many folks with children and young persons in public schools know that the “S” in PTSA stands for “students.”

Most parents today, no matter the initials PTO or the phrase school improvement council, understand that in most settings, parent organizations are an extension of the school principal, who must often deal with fragmented groups.

So it was a pleasant surprise when both the principal and PTSA at Southwest DeKalb High School, just outside the Atlanta perimeter, requested that Project CLEAN initiate a restroom improvement project for the 2011-12 school year.

SWDHS, a classic two-story building constructed for grades 8 through 12 in the 1960s, housed 78 teachers 30 years ago, and now hosts about 1,500 students in a 9th through 12th configuration, taught by about 125 instructors within its several “academies.” A major construction project is in the works for 2013-14, adding classrooms, auditorium and a band-room, and redoing some current halls and restrooms.

In October 2011, the PTSA set a budget of $1,000 for the restroom initiative, allocating some time for Project CLEAN to work on three areas of concern at the school.

In full disclosure, Project CLEAN had been at SWDHS on and off since 1998, including setting up a student committee in 2004. Earlier administrators had not really supported, and even ignored, the initiatives.

This time proved different. Frustration was not the sole motivation, though the principal gave her blessing a day after an overweight student had pulled a sink off the wall.

Support has come from PTSA officers, especially the president, many members, some custodians, teachers and students. This time around Project CLEAN has concentrated on limited objectives and practical actions.

The SWDHS Restroom Initiative began with a focus on decreasing graffiti and making some cosmetic changes to the wing called the Freshmen Academy (though 9 through 12 students use the urinals, commodes and sinks).

A faculty member/coach also requested improvement in the locker room restroom used by men. That space for athletes needed doors on two stalls, and a couch needed to be discarded. The doors were up in weeks and the couch donated to the needy in a month. Check.

Graffiti removal was more difficult. However, some school custodial staff and PTSA members informally adopted the slogan, “Graffiti never sleeps here.” Words that rhyme with “ditch,” obscene words and all writing on doors, partitions, walls and mirrors came down before the night crew left.

Scratchitti — words or symbols carved on surfaces with keys, nails or sharp instruments — was painted over with matching colors, if possible, though with any shade for a temporary fix. (Long-term sanding and proper color painting will happen over the summer holidays.)

Since vandals are rarely caught, experience has taught that immediate removal and painting over words is a good approach. Getting past the “no snitch” false ethic of students takes some doing so Project CLEAN works with the approximate 40 percent of the middle and high school students who avoid restrooms and the half that use the facilities but do not report problems.

These groups are more important than the two to 10 percent that damage the surfaces. We have tried to stop letting the tail wag the dog. In the early months of 2012, when the PTSA held three meetings, the main hall restrooms, which get most of the traffic, had no markings. Check.

The third focus entailed taking down several 16-gauge metal toilet paper dispensers, which had been mounted in the 1990s in the boys’ and girls’ restrooms, on the walls across from the stalls (which were door-less for boys).

The built-for-prisoner apparatus came down easily enough, yet removal left two gaping holes waiting to be filled with drugs, cigarettes or trash.

For some reason, schools often do not have paint supplies for the simplest touch ups. SWDHS needed minor masonry work also. After too long, the plant engineer (the school’s head maintenance person) contacted a district repairman who filled all the holes. Students had wrecked the cheap, faulty, impractical toilet paper dispensers but those prisoner relics are now gone, walls mudded and painted. Check.

Lights have been cleaned, florescent bulbs installed and old, ignored signage removed from entrances. Now student-made signage art is being displayed. A bonus check.

Three presentations have been made to parent and staff attendees of monthly PTSA meetings. Members enthusiastically applauded each improvement. Two lacrosse coaches have volunteered their teams for work on issues for the 2012-13 school year and, at the time of this article, the PTSA president has committed to continuing the project.

The proof will be in the pudding when SWDHS students and adults work on new specific activities to support projects throughout the building, including the soon-to-be-constructed and renovated areas.

Can similar efforts work at other middle and high schools?

Since every school system and school in the country is required to have a wellness policy under a renewed federal law, each district and building can include a “third E” in its Wellness Policy — for Eliminate Properly. 

The national slogan “Let’s Move” should mean eat better, exercise more, eliminate properly. Nasty school restrooms need to move from nasty to nice, and stay nice. And since the same 11- to 18-year-old students in schools use restrooms in libraries, parks, recreation centers and swimming pool complexes, all public restrooms should be nice.

SWDHS is an example of what can be done, and its PTSA is ready to assist other schools that request help. Plans have already begun for the FBI (Fathers Being Involved), selected administrators, the band, sports teams and next year’s PTSA to reach out to other county buildings.

We want to make PTSA stand for, “Please Teach Sanitation Always.”

For more information contact www.projectclean.us, or the SWDHS PTSA president at gregwhite@comcast.net

Dr. Tom Keating is a former co-president of an elementary PTA, a current PTSA member and a lifetime PTA member. He is also the founder and coordinator of Project CLEAN and is writing a book on public school restrooms due in 2013.

About the Author

Tom Keating, Ph.D., has advocated for improved restrooms for students since 1994. He is coordinator of Project CLEAN and founder of the Center for Sanitation and Citizenship. He can be reached at 404/694-2905 or keating.projectclean@gmail.com. The "Publications" and "Video" links at www.projectclean.us have numerous articles and materials on restroom issues. One article, "We Need to See the Third 'E'" is also about wellness.

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