tampabay.com

Restrooms awash in trouble for area schools

By MICHAEL A. MOHAMMED
Published March 23, 2007


TAMPA PALMS - Water or urine covers the floor. Toilet paper clogs the toilets. Graffiti, sometimes gang symbols, shout from the walls.

This is what a restroom in many local schools looks like.

The problem isn't new, but it's getting a lot of attention lately.

At Freedom High School, administrators made the national news after locking most restrooms during class in response to someone scratching swastikas on the walls.

"The vast majority of our kids want and deserve clean restrooms," principal Richard Bartels said. "If they're vandalized, I have no alternative but to close them because I don't have the manpower to clean them."

At Freedom, and elsewhere, it's a dilemma that pits personal health and comfort against safety concerns, and a student's desire for privacy against the school's right to protect its property.

At Jennings Middle School in Seffner, "there's something written on the wall almost daily," principal JoAnn Johnson said.

Every two or three months she has to close a boys' restroom to repair holes punched in the drywall, Johnson said, and every two or three weeks she closes a restroom to clean up graffiti.

Fed up with the recurring messes, Johnson plans to place student monitors outside the restrooms with logs to sign other students in and out.

She hopes this will rob vandals of their anonymity, since administrators can easily link them to the scene of the crime.

Bomb threats, left on restroom walls or scribbled notes, are particularly disruptive, said Linda Cobbe, spokeswoman for the Hillsborough County School District.

"Whenever there's a written bomb threat, we evacuate," Cobbe said.

At Bartels Middle School, administrators managed to snag one of the bomb threat hoaxers.

"You stay on top of it and remove vandalism, and it doesn't become the norm," Bartels principal Maribeth Franklin said. She believes controlling vandalism is easier in a new school building, such as hers. "We kind of try to keep it looking pretty so kids are less likely to be destructive," she said.

At Chamberlain High School, administrators locked the restrooms after a bomb threat in 2004. Since then, administrators say, the school has seen far less vandalism, and plumbing malfunctions are a far bigger issue.

Still, it's hard to find a restroom at Chamberlain that feels clean.

Janitors clean the restrooms every morning, students said. But two hours into the day, they're sometimes too dirty to stomach, ninth-grader Brandon Nogueira said.

Sophomore Jessica Kessel said she often walks around Chamberlain to find the cleanest one. Her friend, Yesenia Escalona, said she gets frustrated at people who desecrate the restrooms, but she will not report them.

"I love my school," she said, but "my mother raised me not to be a snitch."

Beyond vandalism and bomb threats, restrooms can provide potential sanctuaries for sexual activity.

That's what happened at Jefferson High School in February, in an incident first reported as a rape. The 15-year-old girl later recanted her accusation, saying that she and a 16-year-old boy had a consensual tryst.

Bob Morgan, a Jefferson assistant principal, called the incident an anomaly.

"They went into one area off the auditorium that was normally locked," Morgan said. "They were looking for a private place."

When administrators lock restrooms, students say they lose perhaps their one escape from the gaze of adults.

"A lot of people go there to skip, or at lunch," said Escalona, of Chamberlain.

But such privacy should not be an issue, said Johnson, the Jennings principal.

"The role of a teenager is to see how much they can get away with," she said. "My role is not to help them accomplish that.

"I don't think it's my role to provide a place of privacy. That's what they have their homes for."

Michael A. Mohammed can be reached at mmohammed @sptimes.com or 813 226-3404.