Orwell Award Announcement SusanOhanian.Org Home


Attitudes can help clean school restrooms

August 2006

Posted: 2006-08-18

You can tell a lot about a school's attention to students by checking out the restrooms, and Tom Keating has a plan for changing attitudes and behaviors. Senior Editor Jim Fazzone introduces Tom's article.

Robert Tomsho described Keating's work a few years ago in The Wall Street Journal.

You will find several articles about Keating's work on this website, because I think the work is important.

Consider an alternative approach to school restroom cleaning

By Jim Fazzone, senior editor< Cleaning & Maintenance Management magazine, August 2006

I spend a lot of time on high school campuses in and around where I live in upstate New York ? certainly more than the average adult who isn?t involved with teaching kids how to read, write and do arithmetic.

In my spare time when I?m not putting together CM/Cleaning & Maintenance Management? magazine or helping to produce CM e-News Daily?, I officiate high school sports.

It?s not uncommon for me to be at middle school or high school sporting events ? soccer, basketball and softball ? four or five times a week from when school opens in September until it closes for the summer break in late May.

Whether you refer to us as officials, referees or umpires, we make regular use of the schools? facilities to change into our ?working gear.?

After a game, we often make use of a school locker room to grab a hot shower (yes, sometimes the water IS actually hot).

And, when nature calls, we also make use of a school?s restroom.

So, I think it?s safe to say I am a credible source when it comes to reporting on some of the deplorable conditions that exist in some school locker rooms and restrooms around here, and probably in the rest of the country.

On occasion, the word filthy comes to mind, but even that characterization isn?t strong enough. The term well-maintained doesn?t even enter into the picture, in many cases.

It?s common to see books, clothes and toilet paper strewn about, dripping water and mold in shower areas, rusty, dented dividers and stall doors in restrooms, as well as creative graffiti strategically placed at eye level.

These are the same locker rooms and restrooms your kids use (or at least try to use) during the school day. They are the same locker rooms and restrooms your hard-earned tax dollars go toward cleaning and maintaining.

What?s the answer?

Too often, it?s a case of throwing more money, chemicals, equipment and time at the problem.

Then, when that doesn?t work, in-house cleaning and maintenance directors and the custodians they supervise simply throw up their hands, neglect settles in, and only the most basic cleaning and maintenance services are provided.

But there is a different answer out there.

Tom Keating, founder and coordinator of Project CLEAN ? a national project that has worked to improve public school restrooms for the past 10 years ? offers an alternative approach for in-house facility directors to consider.

Keating proposes that facility directors and school administrators work to change attitudes and behaviors, rather than simply throw money, chemicals and staff at the problem.

What Project CLEAN attempts to do is change the attitude of the students who use school restrooms as well as the attitudes of the custodial staff, facility director and administrators about the importance of well-maintained facilities.

Can you imagine a student writing up a work order for the head of maintenance to fix restroom fixtures and then having that student following up to make sure the job got done?

Project CLEAN helped make that happen in a high school in Portales, NM.

You can bet the students, custodial staff and the facility director viewed each other with a different measure of respect after that project was completed.

It?s an interesting approach.

Attitudes can help clean school restrooms

by Tom Keating

Facility management of public schools traditionally has three phases: Design, construction and maintenance.

Most schools go through the first step with architects and engineers; the second with builders and code enforcers; and the third with district and building in-house facility directors, custodians and maintenance and repair staff.

Yet this traditional approach does not seem to effectively handle the use and abuse seen in public school restrooms ? acknowledged by almost everyone as the most difficult area to clean and maintain.

A more comprehensive approach should be considered ? one that not only cleans and maintains restrooms but also addresses the attitudes and behaviors of those who use the restrooms and the attitudes of those who clean and maintain those same restrooms.

A fair trade

No doubt, in-house facility managers and directors already feel they face enough issues. Budget crunches, program cutbacks, cost increases, disgruntled employees, upgraded performance standards, and mandates for environmentally sensitive cleaning products all weigh on their minds.

And, every manager recognizes that newer is not necessarily better, green is not always great, and the attitude of the cleaner is more important than the angle of the mop.

But what facility manager or director wouldn't trade a change in attitudes and behaviors for an easier path to cleaning and maintaining school restrooms?

Project CLEAN (Citizens, Learners and Educators Against Neglect) is an effort to help improve the safety, cleanliness and hygiene of student restrooms in public schools.

This school-by-school project deals with students' attitudes and behaviors, as well as with increasing the involvement of administrators, teachers, facility directors and custodial staff.

Five-step communication process

We have all heard this familiar administrative refrain: "Messy bathrooms have been around for years, not just here, but everywhere". 

And the facility staff in most of today's schools knows there's a problem.

"Every time we clean it up, take down the graffiti, fill the soap dispensers ? it's just as bad the next day," custodians and facility managers often say.

Project CLEAN, which has contracted with 41 schools in six states to date, has developed a way to improve the attitudes and behaviors of students, which in turn, has helped district facility managers and school staff change their attitudes while still getting the job at hand done.

The five-step communication process includes:

1. Gaining the principal's trust.

2. Investigating restrooms periodically.

3. Guiding students and adults to make suggestions and find solutions (rather than dwell on problems).

4. Writing a restroom improvement plan.

5. Using Project CLEAN as a resource for future improvements.

The effect of this approach is to sharpen the awareness of restroom issues for facility managers and to provide suggestions and solutions that are tailored to particular schools.

Facility managers are introduced to a broader way of thinking about restrooms than just design, construction and maintenance.

Five interlocking circles become the mind-set with two critical dimensions added, "user standards" and "evaluation".

Thus, the five phases of facility management of public schools become design, construction, maintenance and cleaning, user standards and evaluation.

With this change in approach, facility managers begin to think about how to address and improve students' attitudes and behaviors, as well as how to effectively monitor and evaluate this unique private/public space and facilitate effective custodial cleaning and maintenance efforts.

Ultimately, students can change their attitudes and behaviors and gain respect for themselves, others and restroom property such as dispensers, sinks, toilets, trash cans and wall surfaces.

Setting standards

The ultimate goal of user standards is to have students "buy in" to the process.

Nationally, an average of 43 out of every 100 middle and high school students avoid restrooms and an effort should be made to reach out to them for solutions.

They should be made to feel they are part of the solution and not just the problem.

Thus, it is important that user standards are part of a school's code of conduct.

The DeKalb County (GA) School System Code of Conduct includes a succinct expectation that could serve for any school system:

"All offenses enumerated in this Student Code of Conduct apply to student behavior in school restrooms and locker rooms. Students are expected to help keep restrooms safe and clean. Also, students are expected to report disruptive, unsafe/or unclean conditions in restrooms to an administrator or other staff members." 

In setting user standards, school administrators and in-house facility directors should consider:

* Including restroom-user standards in the school system's code of conduct.

* Getting students to see themselves as citizens, not just monitored building occupants, which will in turn encourage users to become allies with the cleaners.

* Showing students the result of negative actions and encouraging more positive behavior.

Evaluating progress and problems

The evaluation process is an important addition to facility management of public schools. It is more than just compiling a list of existing hardware and a list of maintenance and cleaning requirements.

In-house facility directors should:

* Look at what has been done in the initial construction or renovation of school restrooms.

* Determine if anything was omitted or if anything should be added.

* Document what is working.

* Determine what is not working.

* Formulate a plan for necessary adjustments and improvements.

Winning them over

How specifically can a facility manager begin to engage students? How can district and building staff change youngsters, while eliciting more support from staff in schools?

First and foremost, supervisors should begin the process by changing their own attitudes as they must first realize that there is a need to find suggestions and solutions.

In addition, in-house facility managers should be open to improvement, keep notes on each issue, take periodic photographs of good and bad conditions, and follow through on requests and work orders.

Then, facility directors can work to change the attitudes and behaviors of their custodial staff.

In-house facility directors and custodial staff should:

* Use the "Four Senses" inspection technique that utilizes sound, smell, touch and sight. In short, custodial staff should care enough to know the condition of the restrooms they service. They should never just walk into a restroom, head down and swab the toilets and leave.

* Be adults who are caring enough to be willing to listen to students' concerns.

* Enlist students as allies in the cleaning and maintenance process.

* Avoid taking an adversarial approach when problems arise. Custodial staff should not see every child as a problem.

* Not wait for complaints, but be proactive and aware of issues before they develop into trouble areas.

Getting students involved

This change in approach and attitude by administration, in-house facility directors and custodial staff paves the way for creating positive change in attitudes and behaviors of students.

Administrators and facility directors can work to change those attitudes and behaviors of students by:

* Getting students to see themselves as school citizens with a sense of ownership and pride in their school restrooms.

* Encourage classroom discussion of the issue of restroom use and abuse.

* Provide message boards that provide an alternative out let for those who would otherwise resort to graffiti.

* Arrange for school clubs, organizations and teams to clean, paint and decorate restrooms under adult supervision, helping to foster additional student ownership and pride.

* Allow interested students to take part in the cleaning and maintenance process by writing up work orders.

Moving forward

Once the attitudes and behaviors of administration, facility directors, staff and students have been addressed, it becomes important to keep the momentum going forward.

Facility managers and custodial staff can facilitate this by keeping restrooms properly stocked and well-maintained. This in turn avoids giving the appearance of neglect.

Also, cleaning and maintenance staff should keep a close watch on potential areas of major concern.

Here are some suggestions:

* Keep cost data on vandalism and then set up incentives to decrease these negative expenditures.

* Evaluate existing restroom conditions to show students the result of negative actions and encourage more positive behavior.

* Retrofit and improve restrooms and consider renovating plumbing.

* Install or reinstall stall doors for privacy.

* Provide hygienic disposal receptacles for girls (if they don't exist in older schools).

The need to rethink

In short, we have built them, but some of the students have not come to use the restrooms, or worse, have taken them over.

Or, school districts have built them, and then not cleaned and maintained them to foster wellness.

Facility managers oversee so much, including this unique and important space. Consider rethinking your approach, working to change the attitudes of students and the attitudes of your cleaning and maintenance staff.

Tom Keating is the coordinator and founder of Project CLEAN, a national project that has worked to improve public school restrooms for the past 10 years. Keating has served 35 years as a teacher, college instructor, governmental liaison, school board member and self-employed educator. He teams with cleaning consultant Perry S. Shimanoff to present hands-on workshops on cleaning and maintenance and other operations-related services to school districts. Keating can be reached at



From the August 2006 edition of Cleaning & Maintenance Management

More Commentaries

This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. We are making such material available in our efforts to advance understanding of education issues vital to a democracy. We believe this constitutes a 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. For more information click here. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.