Flushing out Restroom Vandalism?

“It was an incident that kind of became bigger than it should have,” says Darryl Williams, principal of Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring, Md., referring to a decision made last fall to close a student restroom that had a malfunctioning toilet and was also vandalized with graffiti. “At the time, Security and Building Services requested we close it to get it back in working order and get the graffiti down. It caused such a reaction from the community and the students.”

Fortunately for students, the restroom wasn’t closed long. Williams notes that it was closed on a Tuesday or Wednesday and re-opened the following week. “I know there was a weekend in between,” he recalls.

It’s easy to imagine that Williams must have felt great consternation and frustration at the backlash that resulted from the decision. And one can only wonder if — because hindsight is 20/20 — the same decision will be made if the same situation is repeated in the future.

Even more important, what is an administrator in Williams’ situation to do? No one wants a graffiti-riddled restroom. No one wants an already malfunctioning toilet to be readily available to potential vandals. Unfortunately, no one can answer that question until they’re in his shoes.

However, there are steps that can be taken to keep school restrooms vandal resistant. Consider this two-pronged approach. The first prong is building caring relationships with students and adults to encourage a change in behavior and attitude. The second prong is installing vandal-resistant products.

Relationship Building
Tom Keating, Ph.D., founder and coordinator of projectCLEAN (Citizens, Learners and Educators Against Neglect), has 15 years experience in improving the safety, cleanliness and hygiene of public school restrooms. He advocates building relationships with students so that more of them make good decisions than bad when they’re not being watched.

This includes getting more caring adults involved in talking with students about school pride, even to the point of having clean and sanitary restrooms. It also includes turning apathetic students into involved students, who tell a teacher or administrator when they see vandalism in a restroom and suggest to a would-be vandal that vandalism isn’t cool.

“There is going to be some vandalism,” Keating notes realistically. “One student is always going to pee on the floor because he’s angry with his algebra teacher. You’re not looking for perfection.

“Take the approach that Graffiti Never Sleeps Here,” Keating continues. “This means that, if a student writes the word that rhymes with duck on a toilet partition, and it is reported at 10 a.m., the afternoon custodian doesn’t go home until the word is gone. Period. It tells the vandal, ‘We beat you.’”

After his experience at Montgomery Blair, Williams is in agreement with this approach. He reached out to the Student Government Association, which also sits on his leadership team. “I said I want students to respect the buildings,” he says. “We had a discussion with the student government, promoting that we want to be recognized for the good things that are happening in our school, and we want good students to be recognized, in spite of the few who do things that aren’t what we stand for. I always go to the students; they’re our best cheerleaders.”

Vandal-Resistant Products
When it comes to designing a school restroom with vandal-resistant products, there are more ideas and products on the market than there are space in this article. So the recommendations here are not intended to be exhaustive but are intended to convey that help is available when taking this approach to reduce vandalism.

George Spear, senior product manager with Moen Inc.’s Commercial Division in North Olmsted, Ohio, which manufactures bathroom faucets, stainless steel sinks and other products for commercial applications, among others, has seen vandalism thwarted when administrators lock restrooms during class periods. “Anyone needing to use the restroom must have a pass, and vandalism is then traceable to who was in the restroom,” he explains.

Spear also recommends installing partial partitions so that students are not totally concealed. “With openings at the top and bottom,” he explains, “students know that they can be seen if someone walks in.”

Timothy J. O'Malley, CFM, CPSI, senior project manager at The O'Malley Group, LLC, a facilities management consulting firm located in Phoenix, also wastes no time getting serious about preventing vandalism. “You want to make sure that there is no place students can conceal drugs,” he begins. “One problem we have is with ADA professionals who say, ‘You need a shelf for students to put their stuff on while they use the restroom,’ and we say, ‘No, because they can set their drugs on it.’”

O’Malley also specifically opposes metal shelves because students can hide things underneath them with magnets. Similarly, he prefers full partitions because, with partial partitions, things can be hidden between the mount and the partition.

Double floor drains ensure that, when students plug all the toilets as opposed to just one — and they will — the drains can handle the water. Similarly, O’Malley advocates using metal sill plates at all walls bedded in mastic so that if water does run in a restroom, it doesn’t flow into the room next to it.

To ensure students keep their restroom visits short, O’Malley offers two tips. First, use offset entrances with no doors, and install wash fountains in the hallways. This allows adults to monitor the hand-washing area. Second, use high lighting levels. “We want to see lighting at 80 fc,” he notes. “It verges on being uncomfortable, and the brighter it is, the less time they spend in the restroom.”

Full hinges on doors are preferred so that, when students kick the door, they’re not able to make it collapse. “Or,” O’Malley adds, “if they’re big enough, it’s at least more difficult to kick in the door.”

If you have a vandal-prone school, stainless steel toilets and urinals work best. “They’re ugly but they last,” O’Malley says bluntly.

And, speaking of high-quality products, install the right quality product for the application. “Sometimes administrators choose products based on price or availability, and they don’t necessarily fit the need of behind-closed-door-public-bathroom situations,” says Spear. “You can’t take a faucet that you put in your house and put it in a public bathroom and expect it to perform at the same levels you would at your house.”

Cyrus Boatwalla, director of Marketing for Yonkers, N.Y.-based ASI Group, a manufacturer of commercial stainless steel washroom accessories, agrees. He encourages administrators to work closely with their architects to ensure they understand the school’s needs and the selection of products that are vandal resistant.

Boatwalla also recommends using product suppliers as consultative resources when it comes to designing washrooms. “Don’t let the architect only dictate what to put in a washroom,” he says. “And don’t let a general contractor pick apart a specification an architect writes, because the architect may have written it with vandalism in mind and an alternative product may not meet the specifications as stringently as it should.”

Finally, Boatwalla suggests choosing products based on their quality and ability to fit the application rather than on cost. In the long run, it costs more to repair and replace poor-quality products than it does to buy the best products for the right applications in the first place. “If you have to pay more upfront to outfit a high use-and-abuse environment,” he affirms, “do it because it will be to your benefit in the long run with restrooms that operate efficiently and are not closed to get things replaced.”

Moving Forward
As a result of Williams’ experience, the school has implemented three changes at Montgomery Blair. First, Building Services is closely monitoring all restrooms in terms of being well stocked with soap, paper towels and toilet paper. Specifically, a schedule has been created to ensure that the restrooms are checked frequently every day. “We’re not checking for vandalism,” he notes, “but that everything is well stocked and equipped.”

Second, to break the large school into manageable segments, two security personnel are assigned to each of the three floors. This allows them to patrol a smaller area and be readily available to provide immediate help to staff and students.

Third, teachers and administrators are being more diligent about making sure students are where they’re supposed to be and are equipped with passes. “This incident occurred,” Williams notes, “because some students who were cutting class found an empty restroom and wanted to leave their markings in it. We have found that presence and visibility is extremely helpful.”

Regardless of the mechanisms you do put in place to eliminate vandalism, remember that you’ll never have vandal-proof restrooms, but with diligence, you can achieve vandal-resistant restrooms. And continue to keep a positive attitude, as Williams has: “I’m glad we went through this experience and had the opportunity to refocus our vision at Montgomery Blair,” he concludes.