Why Bathroom Breaks Are Making Schools Less Safe and a Solution to Consider

Interviews with teachers about why they don’t want their doors to be closed and locked are not about safety concerns — they are almost 100% about students’ bathroom trips.

Why Bathroom Breaks Are Making Schools Less Safe and a Solution to Consider

Photo: pkanchana, Adobe Stock

Note: The views expressed by guest bloggers and contributors are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, Campus Safety.

When interviewing SROs, principals, teachers, and staff regarding campus safety assessments, their biggest worry is an active shooter. However, it turns out their biggest problem is their restrooms.

Problems in restrooms include bullying, vaping, cultural/religious/racial intimidation, fighting, criminal damage, political fights, educational disruption, drug use, overuse of staff resources, wandering students, and lost education hours and opportunities.

Restrooms are taxing educational resources more than ever before and making our classrooms less safe. Almost all security experts agree that classroom doors should be closed and locked during instructional periods for safety purposes. Interviews with teachers about why they don’t want their doors to be closed and locked are not about safety concerns — they are almost 100% about students’ bathroom trips.

Several years ago, I first noticed the issues of unaccompanied students wandering the halls, sitting in stairwells, and texting on their phones. Most were carrying a pass for the restroom. Dozens of students were in no hurry to get back to class and some of them were spending the entire period in the hallways or restroom. During daytime vulnerability assessments we were conducting as part of a risk assessment, students who were unaccompanied in the hallways during class let us into buildings more than once.

Bathroom trips are compromising the security of the building. Students were constantly coming in and out of classrooms, preventing the door from being secured during instructional periods. Many teachers were just leaving their doors open. Some students were propping exterior doors to go to their cars. The vice principals and SROs were doing their best, but students going to the bathroom was exponentially increasing the risk to the schools.

Just this week during a security audit, I got the attention of a young unescorted elementary school student returning from the bathroom alone and got her to open a side door for me. I wandered through the school for five minutes before I was stopped by staff. I could have kidnapped a child or created a major disruption. This is the second time in two weeks this has happened — in different schools hundreds of miles away from each other.

Schools that install vape detection systems are constantly playing cat-and-mouse games with students in restrooms all day. Political arguments centered around bathroom use have roiled several districts. Fights, bullying, and intimidation are largely centered around restrooms, usually when teachers are in the classroom and students are not under direct supervision.

Many schools reported that the boys’ restrooms have been severely damaged in the last two years, especially at the high school level. This has resulted in thousands of dollars being spent to replace and repair sinks, toilets, and walls, and the removal of mirrors and doors. Some staff reported this issue has been going on for years. Even my 16-year-old daughter tells me that some girls at her high school go to the restroom and spend an entire class there if they don’t like the class or teacher.

Preventing Unwanted Student Behavior Through School Design

While there may be a need in some parts of a school to have a public restroom area (gymnasiums and auditoriums come to mind), we can design our way out of all these problems and make our schools safer in the future.

In 2020, the General Accounting Office estimated that 53% of all school buildings in the U.S. needed significant upgrades, renovations, or total replacements as they reached the end of their lifespans. There is a historic opportunity to begin changing architecture to help mitigate violence, alleviate security concerns, and relieve educational staff of some disciplinary burdens.

The solution is to move restrooms into the classroom. Each classroom would have its own single-person restroom attached to the actual classroom, like in the graphic below.

Photo Source: Navigate360

Students would no longer have to leave the classroom during class, allowing the room doors to be locked during instructional periods. Vape detectors can be placed in the restrooms, which would no longer become gathering places for students, fights, destruction, or intimidation. Because restrooms are designed for single-person use, political arguments over gender use become irrelevant. This design would also create additional spaces for teacher storage between the classrooms.

It ends the security vs. convenience argument about locking and closing classroom doors. The expense of magnets and door props used by teachers becomes unnecessary as the reason for their existence — bathroom trips — is phased out.

We have an opportunity to improve our security posture in schools in a comprehensive and needed way. We just need to be tactically proactive in design to meet the school and teacher needs and the security portion becomes part of the larger education solution.

Joseph Hendry is the senior director of on-site services at Navigate360. He was named by the Ohio Department of Homeland Security and Ohio Attorney General’s Office as an expert in civilian and law enforcement response to active threats. He serves on the ASIS School Safety and Security Steering Committee. He served six years in the United States Marine Corps and 27 years with the Kent State Police Department. He is a Best Recommended Expert Service Provider for the Insurance Industry and holds a bachelor’s degree in Telecommunications.

Hendry currently is a Principal appointed to the Cross Functional Emergency Preparedness and Response (ACT-AAA) Committee for NFPA 3000 to write the national standard for civilian, law enforcement, fire service and emergency medical service. He was issued the classification of Special Expert by NFPA.

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3 responses to “Why Bathroom Breaks Are Making Schools Less Safe and a Solution to Consider”

  1. randy says:

    No child left behind has become all children academically promoted.

    Students staying in bathrooms and missing class is a parental issue not strictly an educational facility issue. There are more and more forms of parental (you cant stop my child from going to the bathroom), public push back (manifestation evaluations and meetings for reasons why a students inability to follow code of conduct) when student suspension is even mentioned. Allowing for even further incidents (no more than 10 cumulative hours suspension with out a parent meeting) of malingering and missing out on their education requirements.

    There are numerous computer programs available that monitor students bathroom time and number of uses daily. However many teachers do not wish to use the programs due to the requirement of them to operate the program during class time. Administration leadership balk at the cost of installing, training and running the programs. This results in the continued unabated abuse of the restroom privileges.

    The education facilities are more likely to academically promote a failing student than take a pay (local, federal funding) cut by failing them and reset the grade. This is why the overall academic performance K thru 12 of the U.S. is continuing to fall.

    Installing or building classrooms with restrooms in each is not cost effective when you incorporate the additional custodial and maintenance staff required to maintain and repair the restrooms. Another aspect is how many vaping alarms will be alerting at the same time, you cannot expect a teacher to deal with that during instruction. This would require yet more additional administration persons and or SRO’s. This will not reduce the vaping or fighting issue if those restrooms are located within another hallway within a classroom. It will be only mean a smaller crowd. Maybe hire, train and certify parents to monitor the restrooms and hallways, or simply hold the students accountable for missing and failing their classes by holding their parents accountable through OSS and homework.

  2. fox0311 says:

    Something that helped at my old high school with a previous principal is she had all bathrooms locked except for one set on each floor during class time. Between classes a teacher was assigned to stand outside of the bathrooms and would do a walk thru and secure them once the bell rang. This, along with requiring all staff to be outside their room doorways between classes was very effective at curbing the behaviors you mentioned. However, when another principal came in that was one of the first things the teachers wanted axed, because it was a inconvenience to them to monitor bathrooms. Also our facilities director added more restrooms and removed all doors from the restroom entrances for “reasons” still unknown to me. The extra restrooms were away from classrooms and of course attracted students who wanted to vandalize, fight, vape, and do other things away from the eyes and ears of staff.

  3. Jim Elder says:

    As a long-time consultant and Crime Prevention through Environmental Design practitioner, I recognize this strategy as classic CPTED. Natural Access Control (limited number of students under the control of the teacher); natural surveillance (student and teacher “supervision” as the restroom area is entered) small and dedicated specific community (territorial reinforcement). I have seen this technique used in childcare spaces and university residence halls, but not on the scale of a larger K-12 application. I note the objections of Randy, but there are long-ranging positive impacts on everything from bullying to active shooter issues to improvement in grades involved here. Also, I am not so sure this would put an additional burden on the custodial staff because teachers and students may be more inclined to check the room’s cleanliness and tend to any problems before they become major issues.

    Additionally, having restrooms directly accessible from classrooms reduces the need for hall passes and hallway monitoring by staff. There is less student traffic and potential disruption in the halls. It minimizes the chances of students letting others into the restroom who aren’t supposed to be there, as access is limited to only the students in that classroom. Teachers have more control over who is using the restroom and when, allowing access based on disruptiveness to instruction. With fewer students in the hallway overall, there is less loitering and noise disruption for other classrooms. Direct access removes the possibility of students wandering the halls or misusing a hall pass to skip class, as the teacher always knows where the student is. For schools with limited staff, it optimizes supervision resources by reducing the number of unattended settings students pass through. Clearly, a strategy worth consideration.

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