When asked to list the most important rooms in a typical school, most people would include classrooms, administrative offices, cafeterias and some may even include the gymnasium and common areas. But, according to Dr. Tom Keating, founder and president of Project CLEAN (Citizens, Learners and Educators Against Neglect,) the schools’ restrooms generally do not make the list. That is a matter that needs to be addressed because, in his words,“our schools’ restrooms are a national disgrace.”

That is why, in 1996, Dr, Keating founded Project CLEAN, an organization with the mission of changing the attitudes and behavior of students and adults about the importance of providing safe, clean and hygienic restrooms in our public schools. Keating explains the organization“is more than just planning and managing the room. It is about more kids and adults caring about the condition of hygienic restrooms.”

Keating says that this isn’t a problem that is unique to certain parts of the country, or even schools that are located in, say, urban or low–income areas. “I have been in at least 18 states and hundreds of schools. The extent of the lack of supplies, graffiti, vandalism, lack of upkeep and general misuse is a problem in somewhere around 300,000 to 330,000 restrooms, which is much higher than the 200,000 that I originally estimated several years ago.”

So, while it would be hard to argue that unsanitary restrooms should be unacceptable in our schools, why does Keating think it deserves as much attention as some of the other problems our schools face?

“I know of at least one district in country in our country has no doors to the restrooms, no stall doors, no towels, no soap and, because of an incident that took place five years ago, they make a ninth grader ask for toilet paper in a classroom,” Keating says. “These types of issues cause kids to either avoid using the restroom or deal with a deplorable situation. If a student is squirming all day because of bodily functions, how do you think that affects his or her concentration in the classroom? How can they be expected to learn? It doesn’t take too much thought to figure out that these types of situations will affect NCLB scores,” he adds. “School kids are needing to worry not only about their schoolwork but also their need to eliminate.”

Keating says that a large part of the problem is the lack of respect some kids seem to have for the facilities. They create messes, break fixtures, write on the walls, refuse to flush and even purposely miss the toilets and urinals. While only a few students may be blatantly disrespecting the facilities, studies show that four out of 10 middle and high school students avoid using school restrooms all together. “We need to change students’ attitudes and behaviors so that more students will be respectful users, not abusers, of student restrooms,” says Keating.

Keating says that school administrators have been punishing students for their neglect and disrespect of the restroom facilities by taking things away rather than dealing with addiction (smoking issues) or the behavioral issues at the base of these problems.

“That,” says Keating, “is what Project CLEAN is all about. We have established a five-step program that is a communication process.” That program includes the following.

1. Establishing a working relationship with the principal and conducting a site visit.

2. Taking a checklist inventory of restroom conditions.

3. Facilitating student and adult discussion in order to identify solutions to restroom problems.

4. Developing an individualized, written restroom improvement plan for each school.

5. Helping a school team implement its plan to ensure ongoing improvements in student restrooms.

While this subject has been generally ignored, and the statistics are pretty depressing, does Keating see anything positive happening? “When I started doing research in 1994, you could hardly find articles about the condition of restrooms, and now it isn’t hard to find some. I think some positive things have happened. The state of Georgia has passed legislation concerning school restrooms and there has been a law passed in California making it the first state in the union to have standards for public school restrooms. There is a state board policy in Hawaii and a local school district standard in Washington, D.C.”

Keating adds that a law was recently passed that requires the development of a “wellness policy” in all school districts in the United States by July of 2006. That policy is required to address three issues — school nutrition and greater sensitively on extend of obesity, activity and other school-based activities. Keating would like that “other school activities” section to include restrooms. ” I would like to see that all policies include a reference to restrooms. If you feed students better and exercise them more, it will affect their function of elimination. We have been able to encourage the state of Georgia to include these issues in their policy,” he says.

In fact, the state of Georgia is now using a School Administrators’ Restroom Checklist that is the product of a four-fold partnership of Phi Delta Kappa International, Project CLEAN, the Georgia Association of Educational Leaders and Bobrick Washroom Equipment, Inc. The checklist addresses issues like reviewing restroom conditions, supplies, graffiti and communications about restroom conditions. (The checklist can be found on page XX.)

Part of his strategy includes speaking to the students. Keating has been invited by some schools and several districts to address the students during assemblies. He says his talks are designed to raise the students’ awareness of their roles and responsibilities in respecting their facilities, and, while it is only one part of the process, it has been seen to make a difference. But, he has come to some realizations as well. “I have learned that this is an issue that should actually be part of a health class. It’s time to move beyond HIV/AIDS, pregnancy, drugs and obesity, and time to talk about cleanliness,” he says.

“I really wish I weren’t working on this in this country. I wish I was helping people who have never had a toilet to have proper toiletry, because we ought to be helping that half of the planet. We shouldn’t need to be dealing with a multimillion dollar school that is 18 months old, where the kids have torn half of the fixtures off of the wall.”

In fact, Keating has been working in several other countries to help them with their restroom facilities issues. And this past September, he participated in and was a speaker at the World Toilet Summit in Belfast, Ireland. “There are toilet associations in more than 40 countries, including the American Restroom Association,” says Keating. “Different parts of the world have different issues — sewage, water availability, restroom availability, just to name a few. What is impressive about many of these countries is not that they have better facilities, but they have a more open mind about looking at the issues of toilets. The issue of toiletry more developed in the Far East than here. India has developed a composting approach to toiletry to deal with their environmental issues. The World Toilet Summit addresses a range of issues. The issues are real and the seminars are real. The next summit will be in Moscow,” he says.

Keating says he has probably studied more about toilet issues than anyone. “I have learned that this issue of school bathrooms is on the world stage and I am just happy to be able to my little bit.”

For more information about Project CLEAN, contact Dr. Tom Keating at www.project-clean.com or call 404/373-4973.