Flushed: With Respect For Restrooms

improving school restrooms 

ISTOCKPHOTO / DENIS BABENKO

The students who use them have to care about the people who clean them, and the custodians who maintain, repair and clean the restrooms have to care about the students.

And equally critical, the administrative and teaching staff has to care about ensuring safe, clean and hygienic restrooms, especially in middle and high schools.

Few publications write about the end users — and abusers — the students. After all, elementary, middle and high school youth pee, poop, sometimes flush, wash and stash towels. Conversely, the first responders — the custodians — flush, pick up, mop, restock, repair, report and, hopefully, remove soil, the very definition of “clean.”

Unfortunately, the primary users — students — and the primary cleaners — custodians, janitors, maids — rarely work as a team, often lack respect for each other and, as the Eddie Arnold song from my teenage years says: “You Don’t Know Me.”

One head custodian, with the title “plant engineer” in the DeKalb County school district of suburban Atlanta, said it all comes down to respect. Many janitors, custodians or even outsourced staff have said those same words to me from California to Delaware, from Christina to Pomona.

Yet two decades of experience have taught me that “R*E*S*P*E*C*T” (think Aretha Franklin) must be broken down, talked about, made practical and discussed.

It’s not enough to play the song over the public address system as part of the morning announcements, which another DeKalb County high school used to do. It’s not sufficient to mouth platitudes, hang sloganized adult-made, computer generated posters, or highlight “The Word of the Month” on outside marquis as do many Georgia schools just to meet the statutory requirement of “Character Ed.”

The problem with starting with a concept or notion, even of “Respect,” is that the examples adults, including custodians, talk about rarely deal with restroom behavior. Better start where the kids are, with their prevailing attitude and to move from the concrete to the abstract.

Too often, the prevailing attitude of urban, suburban and even rural students, of black, brown and white pupils, of rich and poor kids is, “It’s the janitor’s job to pick up after me.”

So, right up front, I remind sixth-graders through seniors, “It’s your job to pick up a towel with a towel, to flush if you have to use a toilet already full with someone else’s business and to report a damaged soap dispenser. The custodian is here to clean up if you are sick, not if you are lazy.”

Last year, and again in July 2013, I spoke to about 100 incoming freshmen during their second-day lunch of a four-day orientation “Bridge” program. In the middle of the horseshoe-assembled tables, I dropped paper towels on the floor, picked them up, and said again, “It’s your job to pick up after yourself.”

Think cafeteria tables, litter under the bleachers after a basketball game, trash strewn in a school parking lot. It all ties together, yet paper, trays, cans, wrappers should be the starting point of relationship building, not abstractions like respect. Of course, students and staff must have regard for each other and others — etiquette — if you will. Just start with the real and lead students to the realized.

I have learned the hard way that respect can be ill defined by groups of students, cliques, wannabe gang members and even inmates if reports on TV are accurate. Consider a typical conversation from a table of three girls and one guy, street savvy students discussing self-esteem, for the umpteenth time.

“What is respect?
“Respect is respect.” (A classic tautology.)
“What do you mean by ‘respect’?
“She should respect me. (Said by the male.)
“How do you define, respect?”
Young man glares and leaves table.

A custodian and a kid discussing a notion, an abstraction, a concept may do better than a Ph.D. and a pupil. Yet I have also heard students from Alabama to Omaha say the following: “My momma had me, she should pick up after me.”

Or a Delaware senior. “At my house, I live in Apartment A. That’s what my room is called. I take care of Apartment A and nothing else.”

Or worse still from suburban Pittsburgh, “My dad pays taxes, I can break anything I want.”

A head custodian saying “It’s all about respect,” or even trying to get the attention of ear-phoned, texting teens by shouting ‘Don’t mess up,’ is not heard.

A better approach was recently tried with a football team — not the Titans but the Red Devils. A Caucasian man with a two-day beard, in a blue non-descript blue shirt, shades, a baseball cap and work trou, was sweeping and cleaning desks when the thirty young men came in from a “one-a-day weight workout.”

While the coaches took roll, reminded the student athletes about upcoming camp timetables and the no cell-phone rule, this septuagenarian kept scrubbing and sweeping for another five minutes, then ambled to the front when the coach asked for attention.

“Who am I? What do I do?”
“You’re the custodian.”
“What’s my job?”
“To clean up after us.”

Like Clark Kent — off came the Salvation Army purchased work shirt — to reveal the words “Citizen of the World,” given to this veteran Ph.D. educator, with two decades experience improving school restrooms as a part of his 42-year career.

Speechless students began to understand the lesson their titanic coach — a combo of Denzel and Coach Yost — wanted them to learn.

Respect yourself and those who attend to you like nutrition, custodial and grounds staff. Diss those folks and you have no self-respect, no leadership and no inner-strength to win games.

A week later, I came back to see how the brief impersonation-improvisation had taken. First, I was shown the locker-room. Cleats, helmets and pads lined up like in “The Rookie” or in Falcon stadium. Benches, wooden cabinets were stained and shellacked. Floors and walls painted. You could eat off the floor, except there were no candy wrappers, plastic bottles or chicken wings.

Once again, this first man among young men, this adamant coach, this caring adult taught “Dr. Tom,” that respect starts with flushing, washing hands, tossing paper into the trash, stacking equipment in team lockers, respecting self and others, never giving in to disrespect, or giving up on the field or in life.

I remembered I once talked to another team about the five uses of water — drink, pee, flush, wash and clean. During my 10-minute homily, a woman signed my remarks to one, hearing-impaired uniformed player. As I exited the field, I heard players start a rap to the word “FLUSH.” Next day, red-shirted underclassmen and uniformed starters were giving me ideas on how to get students to flush in their 63-nation student-body school.

A third example popped into my head. An outstanding young coach had watched the DVD “True Dat,” which highlighted how middle school students in a Clayton County, Ga., school had performed the only skit made in America about improving school restrooms. That nine-minute disc inspired the coach, who personally cleaned his team’s locker rooms and is still inspiring teams and teachers with restroom and field stories five years later.

R.E.S.P.E.C.T in the restroom begins with flushing, washing, stashing. Maintenance, repair and custodial care begin with adults and kids talking together just like these coaches have talked with their teams.

LEARN IT THE EASIER WAY

Get kids to buy into better restrooms by taking some ownership because custodians and other instructional and administrative staff form relationships with students around restroom improvement.

OR LEARN THE HARDER WAY

A company rep working in five high schools in a neighboring Atlanta school district once called me while I lunched in the oldest restaurant in DeKalb County. He informed me that his organization had good equipment, the best supplies and outstanding training, yet the students were coming behind his out-sourced staff and messing up the bathrooms.

He quickly admitted he was doing nothing to gain the respect of the students. Q.E.D. — Quod erat demonstrandum. That makes the point.

If we keep doing the same things we do, without real relationships among first users and first responders, and we will be replaying the movie “Missing” by Costa Garvas.

Or, as in Shawshank Redemption, “get on about messing up or get on about living”. I choose a life of safe, clean, hygienic restrooms.

This article originally appeared in the August 2013 issue of School Planning & Management.

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