Question of the Day: How to Stop Restroom Sabotage?

(Photo: Michael Coté)

A reader named Olaf Winter writes in with a problem that perhaps you all can help solve?

Hello Dubner & Levitt,

During a Parent Teacher Association meeting in my son’s high school in Essen, Germany, I heard complaints about a growing problem with unbelievably dirty toilets, or to be more precise, with the problem of adolescent girls smirching, soiling, polluting, dripping and littering at the restrooms.

I’m talking about unrolled packs of toilet paper stuffed into the toilet; about smearings on the walls (with pens in the best case). I forgo the more unsavory details. You probably have an idea of what I mean. The school I am talking about is one of the best schools in town. It is a newly built complex with beautiful architecture, lots of space and light. The pupils have an upper-middle-class background. And still, when they are in the restroom at least some of them behave like savages. It seems as if these patterns have turned habitual because whenever a janitor takes care of the rooms, it takes just a few hours before the restrooms turn into a dirty disgusting mess again. The girls have a good idea of who the mudlarks are — but they remain silent and give in to some “I can’t change it anyway” scheme, and act accordingly.

Is there a promising “economists” way to avoid such misbehavior in the first place? Maybe to modify the situation in terms of introducing incentives of punishments for the girls?

I suggested to hire a full-time toilet lady and to pass on the costs to all pupils — on which the PTA predicted serious opposition from the pupils’ parents (because of course “their kids don’t do that!”)

Another way would be to pass on the costs of a full toilet-room cleaning to the few deliberate contaminators that are being caught once in a while. But since there is no security personnel in German schools, such detections are rare. Oh, and video cameras are no option.

Do you know a best practice for the matter of ensuring the cleanliness of public places that are hard to supervise?

By the way: while the major problem in girls’ toilets is contamination, the boys at this school enjoy more technical sabotage. The principal told me that since they first allowed boys at the school two years ago they have to change the motion detectors in the bathrooms (that control the light) at least once a day. The boys like to remove these just for fun. 


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  1. Steve_0 says:

    Close them.

    Or, instead of a full time bathroom attendant, schedule specific restroom times only twice a day maybe, with a janitor or some other available personal being an attendant for 1 hour each.

    But closing them is my best option. Don’t shit in your own nest is a strong lesson that needs to be learned.

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    • Gilbert says:

      I would be concerned that rebellious students that were not provided a bathroom may be inclined to just leave their waste wherever they felt like. The school could end up with bigger messes elsewhere.

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      • DanSanto says:

        I don’t see students being so upset about this that they’re going to take a squat in the corner. 😀

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    • Neil (SM) says:

      The problem is you likely have a majority of students who just go into the bathroom to do what normal people do there, and a minority who is able to cause quite a bit of mayhem. By closing them you punish (kind of cruelly) too many of students who have done nothing wrong. And it’s probably some kind of health-code violation, assuming they have that stuff in Germany too.

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      • Olaf Winter says:

        It sure violates German health codes. You would be surprised by the amount of regulations we have here. And those health regulations intermingle with other regulative areas – with incredible outcomes: A while ago there were serious debates in Germany on whether operators of wind turbines have to provide two separate toilettes in those tiny cockpits behind the rotors – for male AND female maintenance personnel .

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    • julia says:

      clearly you have not spent much time in a public school, nor worked with their parents: restrictions of any sort are not accepted lightly.

      case in point, the parents do not believe “their” children would ever do such a thing..

      .[because all the children in our school are the result of genetic engineering, and spent their gestation in a large mayonaise jar? ha ha]

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    • Mic says:

      Considering people are usually in school for hours at a time, and many young ladies NEED restrooms during the day for about a week every month, I don’t think closing them is an option.

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    • Can't sit . . . says:

      In my junior and senior high schools, they simply took out the toilet seats, the doors, the mirrors, the paper and soap dispensers—everything movable or breakable. All surfaces were industrial and, even though they could be marked or messed on, were easily cleaned, swabbed or hosed down. If you needed to use the toilet, you could, but no privacy. There was cold running water to clean up, then wipe your hands dry on your clothes. If you expected to have need of toilet paper, you should have brought some tissue paper with you. Students who regularly use the facilities will learn to stock up on toilet paper and soap or sanitary handiwipe packets and store them in their lockers or purses or knapsacks.

      Other than that, make the facilities all pay toilets and charge according to cost (including maintenance and repairs.)

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      • nick012000 says:

        That is almost certainly a violation of health codes. Lacking soap and the means to dry your hands (most likely an electric air-blower) means germs will remain on your hands, be spread onto your clothes when you dry them, and be spread around the school for the rest of the day.

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      • Not to worry . . . says:

        Not to worry . . . In the USA, men don’t raise the toilet seats because they think they’re rifle sharp-shooters, when in reality they’re all just firing buckshot. And women don’t sit on toilet seats in foreign stalls; they hover, with similar unsanitary consequences. Men can hover, too. Squatting over a hole in the ground may not seem very civilized, but it’s probably just as sanitary as some bathrooms in the USA. At the very least, you could have the janitorial staff wash inspect each toilet every couple of hours and wash regardless at least twice a day.

        And did you ever notice how many people finish their business and then just leave the restroom without washing at all! It has got to be more than 50%, more like 75% at most times. What are they thinking? Not! People aren’t aware of how much and how many different kinds of bacteria surround them all the time. Surprisingly, however, 99.99% of the time these microbes don’t cause any problems.

        The place to be germ-phobic is with the food handling personnel. Make sure they have clean facilities and require the staff to wash with soap and hot water for a minimum period of time every time they use the facilities.

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  2. Michael Mozill says:

    Why not a reward for all students for every day/week/month/semester that the bathrooms stay clean? This could give the offending students a reason to stop and the innocent students an incentive to turn in the offenders.

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  3. Josh S. says:

    Maybe provide rewards for the whole school if the bathroom stays clean. Or threaten the cancellation of a school trip for example. That will turn the “non-action” students against the students who vandalize.

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    • Mike says:

      The punishment wouldn’t really work, at least not for my generation (I was in grade school from the late nineties to the mid naughts). My 4th grade class had a few students that behaved very poorly. They would harass substitutes to the point that they would refuse to return, and they would constantly vandalize different parts of the school (bathrooms, lunch tables, desks, etc.). Because of this, the administration threatened to (and did) refuse our grade a field trip to the capital (which was the usual field trip for the 4th grade classes in our school district).

      Do you know what happened in 5th grade? We were again refused field trips. We also didn’t get them 7th or 8th grade. I never went on another field trip (minus band competition trips) because of TEN people. The school thought the other students would bully the bad kids into bad behavior, but this just isn’t how the system works. The bad kids know they are going to be banned from the trip regardless of whether or not the class goes, because they will probably be suspended that day. It isn’t like we were rooting these children on before the threats were made; the rest of the grade reluctantly put up with the behavior of these few.

      Making children police each other is even harder when it comes to restroom vandalism. How am I supposed to know what someone is doing in their stall?

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  4. Stephen says:

    In the least noxious case, graffiti, you’ll never win. People have been drawing on the walls for thousands of years; it’s a human thing.

    I suspect that the rest of the vandalism is an expression of fundamental unhappiness with the students’ situation. This is a school, so we’re dealing not with adults but with kids who are in their teen years. Characteristic of that age is rebellion against authority (as they start to assert and exercise independence) and a feeling of resentment against control and structure. That isn’t to say that one should let teens do whatever they want, but I am pessimistic about any imposed structure doing anything substantive to control these kids’ behavior. If you hire a bathroom attendant, I bet you’ll have clean bathrooms but some other part of the school will be regularly defaced.

    What if, instead of having the janitor clean the bathroom, each kid had to clean the bathroom? How big is the school? My high school had a student body of 2,500 and there’s no way that would have worked. But if the school is only a couple of hundred students and there are several bathrooms, then maybe each student could be assigned a work team of three or four and have to clean a bathroom once a week. The kids stuck cleaning up the trashed bathrooms will certainly resent the students doing the damage, and this might encourage some self-policing.

    The kids are not unintelligent and I’m sure they, like every other human, loathe unnecessary work. Let them see the connection between tidy facilities and an easy work shift.

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    • Steve O says:

      There is nothing any school administrator could have done to make me clean other kids’ $@!% in high school.

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    • Gilbert says:

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    • Bill Harshaw says:

      I believe Japanese students are required to maintain their schools, if I remember a book by T.R. Reid, Confucius Lives Next Door.

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      • gjs says:

        That’s largely correct (I work in a private school in Japan). The students clean the classrooms and corridors at the end of the day, but they aren’t required to clean the toilets. There are a number of other cultural factors in play here, but the school is far cleaner than the school I attended in Australia.

        The behaviour seems to stick with them as adults, as the adult students voluntarily clean the martial arts dojos I attend.

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    • Jae says:

      Can’t agree with you more Stephen. In fact, it could still work with large schools, granted you break up / rotate the duty to various classes. I believe most schools in asia do this, and are seemingly cleaner (atleast from personal experience) than restrooms i went thru in high school.

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    • Nick says:

      I like the idea. One modification: rather than having set shifts, you randomize who has bathroom duty. This way you can’t sabotage the bathroom knowing someone you don’t like has to clean it. Everyone has a chance of having to clean it up.

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  5. Douglas Baker says:

    Add a turnstile, preferably one that can require change, at the door. Start it at a median value; in the US, I would charge a dime. If things continue, increase the rate.

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    • Matt Harmon says:

      I like this idea. He mentioned the kids are mostly upper-middle class, so why not start the fee around 0.5 euros? Then, as you said, increase or decrease the rate based on facility cleanliness. Even if the students never stop making a mess, at least the school now has some money to pay for the cleanup.

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  6. Deidra says:

    Define specific standard duties for the paid staff (ie, emptying trash) and make the students responsible for all work above and beyond those duties.

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  7. josh says:

    Take pictures of the most disgusting examples and post them anywhere that the students eat

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  8. M R says:

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    • julia says:

      dear GOD,
      you people have no idea what it is like to work in a public school.

      fidel castro and kanye west sign-out on classroom sign-outs. unless you actually watch students sign the sheet, such a procedure is worthless.

      not supplying any paper products of any kind could work, except the need to carry your own paper creates a hassel in the classroom or the bathroom, when students are unprepared.

      maybe bathroom swipecards, that function as electronic turnstiles for the main door, and each stall. with money deducted on each use. this would identify the entrance and exit of each patron. there is still this problem of teens being unprepared, and how to manage their unpreparedness, because, as I posted earlier, parents won’t permit their children to suffer consequences or restrictions, and their lil’ darlins are never the evildoers!

      of course, all of this would be cost prohibited, so I say, let them shit in their nest, clean-up after themselves, and learn to police themselves.

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