Toilet Paper and Public Education

Bruce L. Smith (
Tue, 4 Feb 1997 23:53:01 -0600

Granted, I could just as easily have announced this article, without
reprinting it, and told you how to pull it off the Web yourselves: but it
was too outrageous for me merely to mention or summarize it. Unbelievable,
and yet all too believable, it must be read to be fully appreciated. The
situation it describes is so absolutely disgusting, maddening, frustrating,
depressing; a perfect reinforcement of my attitude toward public education
in general. Granted, this is an extreme (or so we can hope) case, but how
far removed is any public school from this top-down, authoritarian approach
to discipline? Not very, and not essentially. I see very little in the
system I experienced that isn't congruent with doling out squares of toilet
paper to "recalcitrant" youths.

Just in case any of our friends still feel like defending the current system=



By Janita Poe, Tribune Staff Writer
Web-posted Tuesday, February 4, 1997; 6:08 a.m. CST

It's 2 p.m. in Mrs. Bragg's 5th-grade class at Revere School on the
South Side. Time for the second daily trip to the washroom.
On command, the boys and girls line up--for their toilet paper. Two
pupils scurry to a plastic bin, grab two rolls, and begin handing wads of
the institutional-grade paper to their classmates as they march by.
Before the entire 10-minute procedure is complete, the pupils have
walked, single-file, to the restrooms and entered in pairs to use spartan
facilities with no soap, no paper towels, no hand dryers--and no toilet
Because some pupils have kicked them down, there are no doors on some
stalls. Because some pupils have ripped them from the walls, there are no
soap dispensers at the sinks.
"The rules are not made particularly for the majority of society,"
said Rudolph Anderson, principal of Revere, at 101 E. 72nd St. "They are
made for the minority,those who cause trouble."
This is one face of the public school restroom of the 1990s. As the
spotlight shines on the Chicago Public Schools' new plans for academic
improvement in its beleaguered system, a little-known drama at many local
schools illuminates the depth of the social and disciplinary problems the
schools officials are up against.
In the face of excessive vandalism and waste by pupils, many
administrators in Chicago--as well as in larger cities like Detroit and New
York-- have created regimented policies for using the school restrooms.
Meanwhile, officials at many suburban schools--including those in
Chicago-area communities such as North Chicago, Naperville and Ford
Heights-- say they keep bathrooms supplied with toilet paper and soap. Most
also do not have policies for pupils' use of the restrooms, except perhaps
requiring that pupils have hall passes.
A few school systems serving populations demographically similar to
Chicago's, such as District 169 in Ford Heights, require teachers to
accompany classes to the restrooms two or three times a day, but pupils
also can ask for hall passes to go to the washroom by themselves.
But teachers working in many Chicago schools say their policy is
effective considering the ongoing problem of washroom vandalism. Some
parents and pupil advocates, though, have complained that good pupils are
suffering for the misbehavior of a few and, in the process, the dignity of
all pupils is diminished.
Indeed, seeing such a restroom drill for the first time--and the
apparent nonchalance with which it is now carried out--can be unsettling
even to those familiar with the deep-seated problems of Chicago's public
"If this is standard operating procedure in the school, then what are
the teachers really teaching the children?" said Kathleen Gaiden, who last
year withdrew her daughter from a North Side public school and placed her
in a parochial school because of the school's policy for using the
restrooms. "I think it is, frankly, demeaning. Prisoners are treated
better than that."
For pupils growing up in urban America today, the restrictive
standards may be just another part of school life. But for many
adults--those with memories of ammonia-scented floors and pink soap
dispensers in school restrooms--the thought of having almost no privacy in
the most private of daily routines smacks of true humiliation. It was
embarrassing enough, they say, to have to raise your hand in class and ask
to use the restroom.
At South Side schools like Revere and Wadsworth and Suder on the West
Side, administrators do not place toilet paper, paper towels or soap in the
restrooms. Instead, the principals provide a portion of toilet paper, paper
towels and soap to each of the teachers who then decide how to distribute
them to pupils.
Drummond School in the Bucktown neighborhood and Guggenheim in the
Englewood neighborhood provide supplies in the restroom, but teachers must
accompany pupils to the washrooms.
"It seems a little cruel, but this is what you have to do because
children are putting whole rolls down the toilet," said Wanda Gibson,
assistant principal of McNair School in the Austin neighborhood, where
teachers keep all supplies and accompany pupils to the restroom twice a
Of course, vandalism in school restrooms is not a new problem. There
have always been class-cutters and smokers in the bathroom. But educators
say destruction of school property has escalated sharply in the last few
Thinking his oldest pupils mature enough to handle certain
responsibilities, Anderson actually did try to loosen Revere's restroom
policy earlier this month for 7th and 8th graders. But instead of relishing
the privilege of not having to walk with teachers to the
restrooms or ask them for supplies, Anderson said pupils immediately
reverted to throwing wads of wet paper on the ceilings and dumping paper
towels down the toilets.
The school paid a significant cost for more than one call to plumbers
and maintenance workers. After a few weeks, Anderson restored his more
restrictive policy.
"We wanted to try it, but it didn't work," Anderson said.
Officials say that if a pupil has an emergency and can't wait until
assigned restroom time, he or she is allowed to go accompanied by a teacher
or an assigned pupil.
According to Ben Reyes, the schools' chief operating officer, each
local school council is given a budget every year for restroom supplies,
maintenance and repairs. "The principals (and local school councils) have
to decide how to use them," said Reyes. "You have 557 schools; they have
457 ways of managing their washrooms."
At some schools, pupils are encouraged to bring their own soap, tissue
and towels.
Suretha Pittman, a senior at Harper High School on the South Side,
said students at her school are free to use the restrooms if they have
permission from a teacher. However, Pittman brings soap and tissue to
school every day because many restrooms do not have supplies.
Pittman said only a minority of bad students contribute to the problem
of keeping restrooms clean.
"The majority of the time the (troublesome) students are running in
the halls, rather than hanging in the bathrooms," said Pittman.
Other pupils say they understand the strict policies.
Darius Holmes, a 6th grader at Revere, said he thinks pupils are
confined by too many disciplinary policies. But he believes teachers are
doing their best to confront the problem of vandalism. "I don't think it's
fair, but you don't know who's going to mess up and who's not," Darius
School counselors say the problem with vandals abusing the restrooms
is directly linked to children's need to carve out their own place within
the larger school environment. Traditionally, the restroom has been the
place where clubs are established, feuds hashed over, friendships formed.
It also has been the place where troubled students express hostility away
from adult supervision.
"It (vandalism) happens often in the washrooms because it's out of
sight from the teachers," said Karen Sykes, the schools' senior adviser in
the psychological services division. "It's their own turf. There are a lot
of social dynamics that go on . . . for the short time that they are in
Sykes said many students do not see the connection between vandalism
and their lack of independence. "I don't think they conceptualize it like
we do. Their ideas of action and consequences are not as defined as
In response to the vandalism problems, school products manufacturers
have begun developing tamper-resistant materials and appliances.
But not everyone believes the answer lies in redesigning school washroo=
Gaiden said she thinks schools should spend more time teaching
students the value of personal hygiene and respect for school property. If
there are a few troublemakers, the schools should hire washroom monitors
and protect the rights of other students.
"People live up to the expectations that you set for them," Gaiden
said. "When you treat the majority . . . as if they are potential vandals,
you are going to create vandals."

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=A9 1996 Chicago Tribune


"If a person is determined to learn, they will overcome every obstacle and
learn in spite of everything...but if you bother the person, if you insist
he stop his own natural learning and do instead what you want him to
do...between 10:00 and 10:50 and so forth, not only won't he learn what he
has a passion to learn, but he will also hate you, hate what you are
forcing him to do, and lose all taste for learning."

-- _'And Now for Something Completely Different':
An Introduction to Sudbury Valley School_