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Removing student fear from using your school washroom

Ideally, the school washroom should be a safe space for students. Aside from its obvious sanitation and hygiene function, it is also a go-to place where students can quickly refresh or recharge. For some, it can be a private sanctuary whenever they need a bit of ‘me time.’

In reality, however, the school washroom has often become a hotspot for bullying that many students develop a fear of going. This fear also has serious health implications. Some students may choose to drink less water during the day to avoid having to go to the washroom, and this can lead to dehydration as well as bowel and bladder problems.

In 2010, a survey by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine found that a quarter of the 300 children surveyed avoided toilets because they were dirty and because they were occupied by bullies and smokers. Almost 40% of the girls said they would rather ‘hold it in’ so they did not have to go, while 16% of the boys reported that ‘bad things’ happen in the school toilets.

While this survey may be almost a decade old, the reality of bullying in UK schools persists. A more recent poll found that almost half of children dreaded returning to school after the holidays because of bullying. The same survey found that four in 10 children are bullied so badly that it has had an impact on their academic performance.

Bullying is a complex problem that requires a multi-faceted approach involving parents, schools, the government and the community. There is no easy fix-all solution, but schools can start with simple changes that make a huge impact.

One of these solutions is reassessing the school washroom design.

How washroom design can help curb bullying

The layout of a school washroom makes it an ‘attractive’ hangout for bullies. The small, sometimes dark, corners provide a cover for activities that teachers and administrators are likely to frown upon. By making the school washroom less conducive for such activities, students can feel safer and maximise intended use of the facilities.

For starters, school administrators can greatly benefit from students’ inputs when it comes to a washroom that works best for them. Before redesigning or refurbishing the school washroom, it can help to solicit ideas from the target users themselves. It may even help to incorporate some student artworks in the overall aesthetic of the washrooms, to help students feel more comfortable in using the facilities.

Some aspects that can be reconsidered are cubicle design, door installation and layout.

Full-height cubicles offer more privacy for students. It also prevents bullies from throwing things or peering from the top. Safety locks can be installed for emergency cases.

Washroom doors can be replaced with a partition wall, so it is easier for teachers and other students to hear what is going on inside in case of a commotion, while still maintaining privacy for users. Schools can also opt to keep the doors but install vision panels to allow teachers to regularly and easily check in without disrupting the students who are using the washroom.

Another idea, albeit still contentious for many parents, is unisex washrooms. In this type of set-up, there will be two separate rows of cubicles—one for girls and one for boys—and shared-use washbasins or wash troughs.

How does this prevent bullying and other forms of illicit behaviour?

With increased foot traffic, it will be less likely empty so students will not be as inclined to hang out or do something that will attract a lot of attention. A ‘gender neutral’ washroom is also easier to monitor because any teacher can come in to check.

From an administrative perspective, a shared-use washroom is easier to clean regularly, which addresses the concern of some students that school washrooms are often poorly maintained.

This concept of a large open area with closed cubicles can also be applied to same-sex washrooms. In planning the layout, it is crucial to ensure that there will be no corners where students can get trapped in. It can also help to design the washroom in such a way that there are several entrance and exit points. This can prevent bottleneck during peak hours of use as well as prevent situations wherein students can be cornered with no options for escape.

Minimising hostile behaviour through hygiene

A clean, well-lit and well-maintained school washroom can also aid in discouraging aggressive behaviour. A bully’s behaviour cannot be attributed to one factor but often, it is, in part, a reflection of their environment.

A strategically designed and laid out washroom is just the beginning. Keeping the washroom clean and functional is important, not just to comply with safety and hygiene regulations, but also to send a message to students that the school administration is on top of things.

Imagine a washroom with broken bulbs, malfunctioning door locks, no regular water supply, no soap dispensers and toilets that won’t flush. Not only does it discourage students from using the washroom, it also creates an atmosphere of neglect, which can encourage hostile behaviour and unhealthy habits like smoking in the washroom because of perceived disregard.

Choosing the right fixtures and materials for the school washroom can make a notable difference. When it comes to cubicle doors, Solid Grade Laminate (SGL) and High-Pressure Laminate (HPL) are durable materials ideal for preventing vandalism, which is pervasive in many schools. SGL is water- and liquid-proof and is suited for demanding environments. HPL is also water-resistant and is best suited for dry areas with intense use.

Wash troughs are good alternatives to wash basins because they are easier to install and clean. And unlike wash basins, wash troughs cannot be filled up with water. Sensor taps can also help minimise water wastage.

By investing time, effort and budget in designing and refurbishing a student-friendly washroom, teachers and administrators, together with the school community, can then refocus their energies on addressing the root causes of ill behaviour.

Keep in mind: When in doubt, consult with a design professional to ensure that your school washroom is compliant with applicable regulations and at the same time, strategically designed to be both functional and safe for everyone.