Sera Davidow, Wildflower Alliance Director
An increasing number of schools have begun restricting bathroom access for kids in their care during the school day. This is a serious issue that has many potentially negative consequences ranging from illness to a loss of agency in one’s own life. Additionally, that loss of power and control —particularly when compounded with other losses of power and control— may lead to significant concerns for someone’s emotional wellbeing.
A little about me and bathrooms: My period started on my 11th birthday. I was in the 6th grade, and I remember all too well the embarrassment I felt at school when menstrual blood would leak through my clothes, and I’d have to awkwardly back away and hope I could get into a bathroom without having to talk to a single soul. In that year, the bathroom was often my savior; A welcome refuge where I could privately deal with the body that felt like it was betraying me left and right.
The next year, I moved into what my region called the “Junior High School,” where I spent so much time feeling lonely, isolated, and alienated. There, the bathroom was where I often hid at lunch when I had no one to sit with in the cafeteria. At that point, the bathroom was my friend of sorts (along with the payphone where I’d pretend to engage in lengthy calls when I needed to mix it up a little).
As time wore on, I also grew so thankful for my bedroom at home with its very own private bathroom because it meant I didn’t have to leave the confines of my safety zone or interact quite as much with the family member who sometimes hurt me physically and emotionally. That bathroom was a part of my safety plan.
When I turned 21, I developed an autoimmune disorder called Crohn’s disease that affects the digestive tract, and also started getting a slew of Urinary Tract Infections—one turning into a pretty serious kidney infection. That meant the bathroom was sometimes an emergency need, and certainly a medical necessity.
All of this certainly means I experienced a lot of privilege, both in relationship to bathrooms and in general. I’ve never been unhoused. I’ve never had to share a bedroom. And fortunately, the people who hurt me sexually or otherwise never did so in a bathroom, so bathrooms got to stay a “safe” place for me. It wasn’t until that same year that I also experienced my first bathroom restriction at a psychiatric facility where I had my first involuntary hospitalization. There, I couldn’t be in a bathroom putting on make-up without some large man blocking my only exit while he observed, making sure I didn’t somehow hurt myself with a little glass tube of concealer. It wasn’t until then that I really ever even had to think about not having the bathroom access that I wanted or needed, and that additional loss of power felt devastating to me in that moment. So, even though I’m well passed my high school years, this feels personal to me.
Now it would seem that the right to use a bathroom is commonly restricted in our schools. Nevaeh Lopez, a Holyoke High School student (Holyoke, MA), recently put together a petition begging the community for support to get Holyoke High to stop locking its bathrooms. The current practice is to lock the bathrooms 10 minutes before the end of one class through 10 minutes into the start of the next. (Sometimes the staff even forget to unlock them after that point.) Lopez also reports that, as the school year has worn on and staff have gotten increasingly lax with the lock/unlock routine, it can sometimes be hard to find an unlocked bathroom at any point in the day. Additionally, Lopez noted that the two gender neutral bathrooms are among those always locked raising concerns about safety, privacy, and a sense of belonging for trans kids at the school.
Like with many other schools that have implemented this practice, Lopez identifies skipping class and vaping as primary reasons for the policy. Other schools have also cited issues with violence and bullying. However, as valid as these concerns may be, it brings to mind how often our systems tend to formulate their rules based on the most extreme examples of what can go wrong. And, when they’re not doing that, they’re nonetheless formulating rules based on a desire to control that often ends up being more illusion than effect.
I would personally be fascinated to see research done that compares the rates of the following issues between schools that do and don’t lock their bathrooms:
- School dropout and failure rates
- Transmission of Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs)
- Teen pregnancy
- Problems with substances
- Bullying and violence between students
To be clear, I’m quite intentionally skipping over the ‘problems’ of skipping class, sex, and vaping. Some version of these activities has happened for decades, and aren’t going to stop. They are a normal parts of the ‘coming of age’ experience for many kids, and anyone who says otherwise is just kidding themselves. So, let’s jump to the more indisputably problematic or harmful outcomes that we’re actually trying to avoid. I suspect that such a study would NOT find substantial and consistent improvements where bathroom access has been restricted, though who knows for sure. I only know that I couldn’t find those studies when I looked.
On the other hand, what I could find were numerous studies talking about the physiological damage to children’s bodies when asked to ‘hold it,’ particularly at younger ages, but also overall. And what I do know is that loss of power and control over ones own body—based on all kinds of research— can be devastating, and can even contribute to someone’s thoughts of not wanting to stick around on this planet, as inhospitable as it can be.
I get —when our already over extended school systems have to navigate bad things happening or parent complaints— that sometimes its easier to just make some gesture like locking the bathrooms to make everyone think a problem has actually been addressed. But illusions do little more than temporarily diverting attention. We need to ask our schools to do better. If our kids are skipping class, using drugs, or fighting with one another… Why? What do they need? What are the real problems here? And how do we help them get ready for the rest of their lives where bathrooms won’t be locked… Because, actually, at least at work, using the bathroom whenever needed is a legal right.
Consider signing the petition to help Nevaeh Lopez and fellow students get the right to use their school’s bathrooms back here: tiny.cc/BRlocks
For additional information on the harms of locking school bathrooms, check out:
- When Schools Tell Kids They Can’t Use the Bathrooms, The Atlantic, Feb. 2019: tiny.cc/AtlanticBR
- Bathroom Closures at M-A Violate State Law, M-A Chronicle, Nov 2021: tinyurl.com/MABathR21
- Health Risks to Children of Forced Retention of Bodily Waste, 2011: nospank.net/frbw.htm