The Complications of School Bathroom Policies

I’ve written in the past about school dress codes. There’s another topic that’s just as complicated, and that’s also getting attention in the news lately: Bathroom pass policies.

Last month, a middle school teacher’s policy notice went viral. For people outside of education, the policy (two passes a month, no more) might have seemed draconian. I can assure you, as a teacher with experience in multiple districts, it’s not unusual. The tone may have been too sarcastic, but I’ve seen stricter policies.

In an ideal world, bathroom pass policies wouldn’t be needed at all. In college, in the work world, most students and professionals are treated like adults: If we need to use the facilities, we go use the facilities. There might be specific times (such as meetings or when we’re presenting to a class) where we’re strongly discouraged, but there aren’t seven hour chunks of times half the days of our year where we have to wait for small windows to pee.

So why do we have such policies?

For one thing, many students abuse bathroom privilege. They’re bored and disengaged with what’s going on in the classroom. “Can I go to the bathroom?” means “Can I go to the office, wander around the cafeteria, watch my friends through the window, and shoot the breeze with the security guard?” I would love to pretend that my students are deeply engaged in everything I say, but they’re not.

That’s understandable. My students are teenagers. All school students are children. They’re being forced to be in school, and at times, it’s boring. We teachers get bored at four days of Professional Development, and many of us “go to the bathroom” and visit the office, wander around the cafeteria, watch our friends through the window, and shoot the breeze with the security guard.

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At the same time, though, we have a legal responsibility to keep watch on all of our students. Students wandering the hallway are students not in the classroom. If they get hurt elsewhere in the building, or if a parent calls and a teacher can’t locate a student, that comes back onto the teacher.

Also, students in the hallway are a distraction to the other classes. One of the things students love to do is peek in other classrooms. And the more students there are in the hallway, the more opportunities there are for students to do things that shouldn’t be happening in school at all.

I’ve had administrators that have had very strict rules about students being in the hallway during class time. A former administrator gave automatic suspensions to any student in the hallway during class time. The ONLY exception was, once a year, a menstruating student could go to the counselors to get an appropriate hygiene product, which came with a lecture on preparedness.

In these conditions, it’s understandable why many teachers would allow very limited bathroom passes.

Furthermore, one of the few professions where the employees also have to routinely “hold it” for hours at a time is teaching. “I have to hold it,” I’ve heard multiple teachers say, “so they can, too.” I get it. I’m a high school teacher. During the four-minute window between classes, I’m expected to stand outside my door monitoring hallway traffic. I have a three hour block in the morning between when I come in and when get my first real break.

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On the flipside, we all have moments of true bathroom emergencies. If I really need to, I can call out for security to watch my room for a few minutes. I have done this perhaps twice a year as a teacher, but the option is available to me.

My students, meanwhile, are children. They have less ability to “hold it.” They have a small window for going to the bathroom. There are times where there is a legitimate need to urinate or defecate, and we should never deny them that.

In 1948, the United Nations proclaimed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, in which it was declared that all humans have many basic rights, including basic dignity. Being denied the right to bodily needs is a violation of that declaration. Full stop.

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I’m not suggesting that school classrooms always have an open door policy (although when it’s an option, especially in elementary school, that’s wonderful). Many children, sadly, can’t be trusted with that much freedom. They don’t have the maturity.

What I’m suggesting is that teachers and school administrators work to develop a bathroom policy that is compassionate to the humans we have in our classrooms that genuinely need to use the bathroom. Perhaps they tried to go during hallway time but the bathroom was locked or overcrowded. Perhaps they have diarrhea because the Food Desert food they had for dinner made them ill. Perhaps they’re menstruating and they needed to get supplies from a classmate before heading to the restroom. Perhaps they just didn’t realize how badly they needed to pee until the bell rang and they sat down.

If they need to use the facilities as a genuine emergency, it undermines their right to decency for us to ask why.

If our administrators won’t allow this, it’s on them, but to the extent that we can shape this, we owe it to our children to do so.

Originally published on The Good Men Project.

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