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Bathroom break rules

January 19, 2004|by SCOTT BUTKI

scottb@herald-mail.com

When a student walks into a North Hagerstown High School bathroom, leaves, then returns a minute later, a camera records his movements.

The school later can use those images - which are saved digitally - to help determine which students may have vandalized the bathroom, Principal Robert "Bo" Myers said.

In order to help keep bathrooms clean and safe, the Washington County Board of Education has installed cameras outside most of the bathrooms at North over the last few years, he said.

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The same is true for the other middle and high schools in the district, said Dennis McGee, district director of facility management.

While there are cameras near the bathrooms at Jefferson High School in Shenandoah Junction, W.Va., the high schools in the Chambersburg Area and Greencastle-Antrim school districts in Pennsylvania do not have cameras, education administrators said.

Myers said the motion-sensitive cameras cannot actually see the toilets, but are instead focused on the entrance and exit, letting school employees see who is going in and out of the bathrooms and when.

On a computer monitor, he can watch the images in real time or examine prior footage, he said.

The front door of a men's bathroom near the cafeteria and gymnasium - the bathroom with the most traffic- is propped open. The stall door has been removed. A partition divides the toilet stall from two urinals, and none of the three are visible from the hallway or with the cameras.

Myers said the rest of the bathrooms in the school have stall doors.

It is necessary for the students to give up some privacy for the good of the school, Myers said.

Not all students are comfortable with the cameras.

"I think it is a bit of an invasion of my privacy," said David Broadwater, 17, a senior at the school. "I know they need the security. But I feel it's weird. ... It is whack."

But Becky Sager, 16, a junior, said she has no problem with the school having cameras outside the bathrooms if it means they will be kept clean and safe.

"I am fine with them," she said. "I would rather not have a gun put to my head."

Jefferson High School Principal Susan Wall said the school's cameras are focused on the hallways by the restrooms, letting employees see who has gone by in the hallway, and who has entered and exited the bathrooms, she said.

Ted Rabold, assistant for pupil services for the Chambersburg district, and Greencastle-Antrim High School Principal Jack Appleby, said their schools do not have or need cameras by their bathrooms.

Instead, teachers at the schools address and deter the small amount of graffiti and vandalism problems they have by checking the bathrooms regularly, Rabold and Appleby said.

Rabold questioned whether students would really feel comfortable using the restrooms with cameras outside, even if students on the toilets can't actually be seen on camera.

Wall said smoke detectors in the Jefferson High School bathrooms have helped them catch anyone trying to smoke. Officials at the other schools surveyed are not using that approach.

North High custodian Sam Shoemaker said the cameras are necessary additions.

"It is not the bathrooms that have changed. It is the people using them and the respect they have for the property," he said.

If you want to judge the quality of a school, check out its bathrooms, he said. If the bathrooms are clean and well-maintained, the school most likely does not have many problems, he said.

But if vandalism and graffiti and other problems are not quickly cleaned up, the students get the impression that the school does not care about the facilities, he said.

Myers said the theory is similar to the "broken windows" theory of policing, which is that if small problems like broken windows aren't fixed, more serious problems arise.

The custodians inspect the bathrooms at least twice a day and clean them at least once a day, Shoemaker said.

Shoemaker recently led a reporter and photographer on a tour of the school's bathrooms. When he saw pieces of unused toilet paper on the floor and in the sink he said, "That is typical, but not so bad."

But that damage is superficial and easy to clean up, he said. More troubling are graffiti and vandalism, which happen less often, he said.

About once a week, someone will write a message in the bathroom, often in Magic Marker. Maintenance workers try to remove it quickly.

Sager said she remembers seeing more problems in the bathrooms in her freshman year.

"You'd walk in and there would be a cloud of smoke. And people would write on the walls," she said.

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