Vandalism, vaping and evasion — those are the reasons Laconia High School Principal Jim McCollum listed in a letter to parents, explaining increased security at student bathrooms.
“The problems started with vaping about four years ago and that issue has not gone away. As a matter of fact, it has increased,” the letter stated. McCollum went on to note that in addition to vaping, students have been vandalizing and destroying bathrooms as a result of a Tiktok-fueled trend, and meeting up with friends in bathrooms to skip study halls and classes. Social anxiety, exacerbated by the pandemic, had also driven students to spend extended periods of time in bathrooms as a way to escape the stimuli and interactions of classrooms.
“Due to all of these reasons cited, we began posting administrators, our school’s SRO (school resource officer) and guidance counselors outside the bathrooms each period to mitigate these problems,” McCollum wrote. During some passing periods during the day where students were entering bathrooms to skip study hall, McCollum said in an interview, specific bathrooms were locked and monitored. According to McCollum they were unlocked at the end of those passing periods.
The letter was prompted by complaints made on social media last week about students having insufficient access to bathrooms.
One post, made on June 1 by someone who identified themselves as an LHS student, but didn’t provide a name, claimed so many bathrooms were locked that the only ones available, such as the bathroom in the nurse’s office, had long lines. This student said they missed entire lessons waiting in line for the bathroom. These measures, the student claimed, were particularly hard on those who menstruate and others who may need to access restrooms urgently.
Other posts made claims that all bathrooms were locked, something commenters on these posts, who also identified themselves as students, disputed.
In an interview, McCollum refuted these claims, saying that they resulted from a one-time difficulty. On Tuesday of last week, McCollum said, there was a situation where the faculty member on duty at a centrally located bathroom – who was supposed to unlock it after a locked period – was unable to be in school that day. The bathroom remained locked, causing students to lose use of that bathroom for an extended period of time.
McCollum emphasized that this was an isolated incident and not the official policy.
“As you can probably imagine, this new responsibility took us away from other responsibilities and there were times we were not at the bathrooms because we were required elsewhere,” the letter stated.
“I am not in the business of locking people out of bathrooms,” McCollum said. “We’ve actually increased the number of bathrooms available for students.” To address potential delays caused by bathroom monitoring, students are able to use single-stall, faculty bathrooms, something McCollum said the school has not allowed before.
He noted that, additionally, severe damage or vandalism in a bathroom would necessitate that it be locked by the school.
McCollum – noting that the increased monitoring responsibilities had stretched thin existing faculty capabilities and seeing that times when unlocked bathrooms were left unsupervised saw a return of bathroom misuse – said the school intends to hire full-time bathroom monitors for next year. At its June 7 meeting, the Laconia School Board approved the use of federal ESSER funds to hire two bathroom and hallway monitors.
“I will sadly admit to you, that in the short time I have been back in Laconia I have not found an effective solution to the bathroom issues facing our high school,” McCollum wrote. “I can say that now that we have consistent supervision in front of the bathrooms, damage to the bathrooms has been reduced and large group gatherings have been curtailed.”
Another social media post made by someone identifying themselves as an LHS student spoke positively of the measures, saying that monitors specifically appeared to decrease the amount of vaping and class evasion in students. This student said that prior to these measures they felt uncomfortable using the bathroom out of fear they would be grouped in with those misusing the bathroom if a faculty member arrived. Though not in favor of the measures, the student argued that, if students disliked the new rules, they had a collective responsibility to change their behavior.
Schools across New Hampshire and the country have faced similar issues with bathrooms and implemented similar policies.
This spring at Concord High School the principal and vice principal served as hall monitors, preventing students from gathering in the hallways during the seven-minute passing period between classes. This policy was implemented to address behavior issues such as bullying, harassment, foul language, intimidation and physical altercations, according to comments made by administrators to The Concord Monitor. Concord has also experienced vaping and vandalism issues in bathrooms.
Amherst Regional High School created a rule where students who spend more than ten minutes in the bathroom are deemed tardy and those who spend more than 20 minutes receive an unexcused absence. No more than two students are permitted in the restroom at a time. ARHS Principal TalibSadiq told The Daily Hampshire Gazette that students had reported feeling unsafe and uncomfortable using bathrooms after an increase in vaping, vandalism, fighting and groups congregating in bathrooms.
Students at Keene High School, starting in March of this year, are not allowed to leave class, lunch or study hall in the ten minutes before and after passing times and only one student per class is permitted a bathroom hall pass at a time, according to the ”KHS Together” video, which introduced the changes to students.
The video can be found at youtube.com/watch?v=HlOd9OXt85U.
Faculty at each of these schools contextualized these measures as part of a broader concern with student social behavior and mental health, particularly among underclassmen.
“The pandemic hasn’t increased students’ feelings of safety and trust in society,” McCollum said.
McCollum said that the modality and restriction changes to schools during the pandemic, along with the stressors of the pandemic itself, caused students to no longer feel “in control and confident” about school or life.
“They don’t have hope for the future and don’t feel a sense of purpose at school. They’ve lost the ‘why’ of learning and being at school,” McCollum said. He called on the community, parents and educators alike, to “come back together to support young people,” adding that the district is looking into ways to augment its social-emotional learning programs.
Though LHS’s measures target the symptoms of the issue, McCollum acknowledged the need, and the struggle, to find solutions targeting the roots of these problems.
State Rep. Richard Littlefield, who represents Laconia, also said that problems in bathrooms are a manifestation of broader behavioral issues in schools, but disagreed about the approach of administrators.
“It starts with schools demanding respect from their students,” Littlefield said. Schools have been driven to hard lines in specific situations like bathrooms, he said, because of an unwillingness to take a firm stance with basic respect and etiquette. Littlefield believes that SEL is a “moot point” when not accompanied by firmer discipline systems.
The effects of the pandemic on young people are still unfolding and still being studied, McCollum said. These problems are not ones educators have historically faced and, therefore, there is no established, studied solution to them.
To students who feel they do not have adequate restroom access, McCollum said, “Say something, and say it with civility and courtesy. It’s important that kids feel empowered… to say ‘this is what I need.’”
To concerned parents, McCollum said, “Give me a call. I will not pretend I have all the answers on this. I want transparency, and I want to work with anyone who’s ready to help solve problems.”
“This is a work in progress.”
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